No Toys for Tots in Grand Junction this year

Dispute between foundation, local liaison dooms effort

Nine-year-old volunteer Isabel Manzanares, right, checks out the wish list as happy shopper Lois Shaw clutches a new football for her 10-year-old grandson during the Toys For Tots giveaway in this file photo from 2009.

After filling the stockings of tens of thousands of less-fortunate Western Slope children with toys for more than 20 years, the Toys for Tots drive in Grand Junction will stall this year because of a lack of communication between the national foundation and the longtime local campaign coordinator.

The Mesa County Workforce Center and The Salvation Army are scrambling to coordinate an alternate program, but with less than two months until Christmas, time is running out to fill the large void left behind.

Maj. Brian Murray, vice president of operations for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation in Triangle, Va., told The Daily Sentinel on Friday there will not be a campaign in Grand Junction this year unless a new coordinator steps forward.

The reason, Murray said, is because the previous coordinator, Greg Merschel, didn’t file the necessary reports on the 2009 campaign.

“This past year there was virtually no communication,” Murray said. “The work wasn’t done the way it was supposed to be done.”

He said the foundation mailed Merschel a letter in March informing him there would be no campaign and that the local organization wasn’t authorized to use the Toys for Tots name or logo. The letter also asked Merschel to return promotional materials to the foundation.

“We need for people to follow the rules so it’s done properly,” Murray said.

Merschel, who said he’s been involved with the local Toys for Tots campaign since 1986, said he tried to submit the paperwork electronically but encountered problems with the foundation’s website. He said he spoke with the foundation by phone and e-mail trying to troubleshoot the problems but acknowledged he didn’t know whether the foundation received the reports.

“If they want to say that’s why (there isn’t a local campaign this year), they can say that,” Merschel said of the foundation.

He claimed he never received a letter from the foundation and didn’t learn there wouldn’t be a local campaign until August, when a vendor he has purchased toys from for years told him he wasn’t listed as a campaign coordinator.

“It’s better to let (the campaign) die and resurrect it than it is to get into a pissing match. It doesn’t help anyone,” he said.

Merschel said while the toy drive has always been about providing for the kids, he acknowledged serving as coordinator has burned him out.

“I will be the first to admit I’ve been screaming for administrative help for years,” he said. “We’ve had three people have heart attacks either running the program or trying to help.”

He also acknowledged that there are toys in inventory that weren’t distributed last year but responded that he had “no idea” if there was a plan for handing them out. Murray said those toys belong to the foundation and should be reported to it so foundation officials can work with a local group to distribute them.

Workforce Center Director Sue Tuffin said she learned just last week that there was no longer a coordinator for Toys for Tots in Grand Junction. Workforce Center employees have served as the infrastructure for the campaign for the last decade, determining families’ eligibility, maintaining a database of information and handing out toys.

But a campaign under the Toys for Tots umbrella appears unlikely this year because the deadline to participate in the foundation’s program passed three months ago, and the coordinator must undergo training. Campaign officials also have no facility from which to distribute toys.

Murray said Toys for Tots doesn’t recruit campaign coordinators because the foundation doesn’t have the employee base to handle that effort, and also because it’s not necessary. He said the number of campaign sites has grown from 245 in 1996 to more than 700 this year.

Tuffin said the Workforce Center plans to team with The Salvation Army in Grand Junction to create some type of toy collection and distribution program this holiday season. She said since word began spreading about the lack of a Toys for Tots program this year, corporate sponsors such as Deep Rock Crystal Drop Water Co. and student organizations at local high schools have offered support.

“I know we will come together and solve this issue for this season,” she said. “I can guarantee you there will be a local effort.”

Salvation Army spokeswoman Claudia Jackson said the nonprofit provided toys for 3,000 children and food boxes for 1,648 families last year. Officials forecast those numbers would grow to 4,200 children and 2,100 families this year.

Now, they don’t know what to expect with the folding of Toys for Tots, which distributed 21,000 toys in 2008.

Tuffin said officials will attempt to re-establish a Toys for Tots campaign next year.


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