The Galloway Township-based Marine Corps League Detachment 194, which runs the Atlantic County chapter of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve's nonprofit Toys for Tots program, has hardly had a hiccup in its many years running the collection drive.
Sure, some years economic troubles have slowed donations and increased demand, but the need has always been met. This year, though, circumstances have strained the effort like never before.
In late October, thousands of collected toys were stolen from a locked storage trailer, leaving the effort at half strength at the start of the season's most critical point. Couple that theft with a devastating superstorm that has turned many area residents - some of them last year's donors - into recipients, and the nonprofit's Atlantic County chapter is in full-on crisis mode.
"We're at a 50 percent disadvantage already, and we're getting even more calls because of Sandy," said Detachment 194 Junior Vice Commandant Bob Fudala, of the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township. "People out of work. It's really hurting us bad this year."
While the detachment has been accepting toys since September, the bulk of the pre-Thanksgiving collection comes from Kerbeck Cadillac Chevrolet's annual Corvette Toy Run, through which 300-900 Corvette owners can show off their rides in exchange for the donation of a few toys.
This year's donations nearly filled a 53-foot storage container, which was locked and backed against the wall at a trucking facility owned by Toys for Tots Atlantic County Chairman and Detachment 194 Senior Vice Commandant Frank Vesely.
When volunteers returned to retrieve the toys from the container, they found it all but empty. Police have made an arrest in the case, but no toys have been recovered.
Word of the theft has gotten out to the community through the media, Vesely said, leading to an influx of donations, but they're still far short of where they need to be.
"I've been getting phone calls, as you see, and we picked up some places that we never had before," said Vesely, of Brigantine. "Is it going to compensate for what we have lost? No, but it's going to help out a lot."
In addition to the theft, Hurricane Sandy has disrupted collection at many businesses on and around Absecon Island that have been important partners in years past, and the cancellation of conventions such as the New Jersey Teachers Convention, which can generate thousands of donations, has further weakened the effort.
Last year, Detachment 194 distributed almost 23,000 toys to about 900 families and about 40 nonprofit agencies. This year, many more families and nonprofits are applying, and there are far fewer toys to go around.
Still, Vesely said, Detachment 194 will ensure that come Christmas, there will be a toy under the tree for every kid in need.
"We're saying a quote now, 'Santa Claus is going to come, but his bag isn't going to be as heavy as it was,'" said Vesely. "Instead of getting three toys, we're going to give them two. (But) they're going to get something."
To apply for toy pickup or for a list of drop-off locations in your town, visit toysfortots.org and look up Atlantic County under the "Donate a Toy" tab. To contact the Atlantic County effort directly, email atlantic.toysfor
firstname.lastname@example.org or call Frank Vesely at 609-868-0003.
Toys will be collected through Dec. 15, and distributed from Dec. 17-21.
Contact Braden Campbell: