WILDWOOD - John Lynch doesn't look like Santa Claus. There is no fluffy white beard, and the avid bicycle rider isn't even slightly overweight.

But when Donna Troiano looks at him, that is exactly what she sees.

"This is Christmas, and this is Santa Claus," said Troiano as she looks at Lynch, 52, of Wildwood Crest, standing next to hundreds of Christmas toys collected for the needy living on Five Mile Beach.

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Lynch may be a Santa Claus of sorts, one of many that engineer toy drives this time of year in their hometowns, but he will only admit to being: "The Lynch who stole Christmas from the Grinch."

Using the Grinch in the marketing campaign for the annual Christmas toy drive has paid big dividends. The Grinch, a character in a Dr. Seuss children's book who tries to steal Christmas from the imaginary town of Whoville, is on the campaign's website, the Facebook page and in a YouTube video. The Grinch even makes appearances at fundraising events, such as the upcoming Breakfast with the Grinch at the Key West Caf� this Saturday. Those who bring toys will get a free breakfast - but the real draw is the Grinch.

"The Grinch comes in and tries to steal the toys," Lynch said.

Of course, he never gets away with them because there are too many needy children in Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, North Wildwood and West Wildwood who need them more.

"Last year 2,000 had to be wrapped, packaged and delivered. There is a lot of need. Over 90 percent of the children in the local school are on the free or reduced-cost lunch program," Lynch said.

The Grinch helps bring a theme to the program now entering its fifth year. Lynch credits Beth Chiarella with coming up with the idea. Chiarella has her own toy drive, so it shows there is no competition when it comes to these things.

"We all have one goal and that's to make Dec. 25 a brighter day," Lynch said.

As Lynch is talking, a steady delivery of presents is coming in to the Wildwoods Convention Center, where Lynch is director of sales and entertainment. The presents are being stacked up on the side of the room waiting for 150 volunteers, known as "the Grinch team," to wrap and deliver them around the island on the night before Christmas.

First the presents are assembled based on gender and ages.

"You go to boy, sixth grade, and grab three things. Throw in some candy and stocking stuffers, wrap it up and put a label on it," said Lynch.

There is master list of children and addresses. The local police and fire departments, and other citizen volunteers, do the packaging and delivering. Lynch's wife, Vicki, handles the financial aspects. Her official title is chief financial officer of Whoville, the town where the Grinch stole the Christmas presents in the Dr. Seuss book, before rediscovering the spirit of Christmas and returning them.

Lynch has his own view of the spirit of Christmas that he got from his father, who did volunteer work in their hometown of Stone Mountain, Ga.

"My dad taught his children, whatever your community gives you, pay it back twofold and you'll live a long and healthy life," said Lynch.

His father Hugh Lynch is 85.

He also sees the need when he asks local children what they want for Christmas.

"One wanted a warm blanket for their mom. Another said, 'We move so much Santa doesn't know where I live.' It was like I was punched in the stomach," Lynch said.

The first year Lynch wanted to help 20 families but delivered to 87 of them. It has grown each year. Last year, partly due to Hurricane Sandy victims from northern New Jersey staying here, they helped hundreds of families. Sometimes they even go off the island to mainland towns to deliver to needy children.

So far they have always had enough gifts. So far, they have overcome the Grinch.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

How to help

To contribute call 609-849-8887 or log on at www.lunchwithlynch.com/grinch/

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