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Santa’s workshop set up at Hemmens for annual toy giveaway

Volunteer EvReyes Elgplaces toys amongst other toys Tuesday during annual toy drive The Hemmens Elgin.   December 18

Volunteer Eva Reyes of Elgin places toys amongst other toys Tuesday during the annual toy drive at The Hemmens in Elgin. December 18, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 20, 2013 6:08AM

ELGIN — The basement of the Hemmens Cultural Center became Santa’s workshop Tuesday afternoon as volunteers readied the facility for the annual Elgin Community Holiday Toy Giveaway being held Wednesday.

“It’s all for the kids, and it feels good to do something like this for the public,” said Matthew Garmager, who with friend Kimberly Franson has been volunteering for the “elf-fort” for 10 years.

Mare Hyatt — who is a member of the Community Crisis Center board of directors and coordinator of the toy giveaway — said that while the event takes cash and gift donations, the bulk of the presents come from the local Toys for Tots campaign overseen by Elgin Marine Corps Detachment No. 077.

Hyatt said the Toys for Tots bounty had been dropped off at the Elgin Township office last week, where packages were stacked up to the ceiling. A semi would drop off that stash and toys collected at Elgin Community College. Other goodies were collected at the Grand Victoria Casino and various area businesses, and at the Community Crisis Center and unloaded at Hemmens, too.

“This has been the largest collection ever,” Hyatt said. “Without the Marines, we would not have enough toys to distribute.”

Thousands benefit

Last year, the Elgin drive brought in more than 8,000 toys, and so many that some went unclaimed, Hyatt said. About 300 people volunteer annually, Hyatt noted, and the giveaway has been going on for more that 20 years. It 2011, the effort gave toys to 1,015 families and a total of 2,770 children.

The giveaway begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday and runs until 7 p.m. Parents must provide photo ID proof of residence in either Elgin or South Elgin and records showing the children under their care.

Participants are given numbers, Hyatt said, and assigned times to go through the makeshift toy warehouse. Once in the toy room, they are aided by a volunteer who holds the bag in which they can put up to two toys for each child.

On Tuesday afternoon, dozens of volunteers sorted the items on tables by age appropriateness. Clothing and weaponry toys were put in piles to be given to other organizations.

Hyatt said donations for teens usually have the fewest number of items. Garmager and Franson mentioned the availability of Fisher Price toys for toddlers. The most unusual donations have been items from the 1960s and 1970s — including an unopened Mystery Date board game, they said.

Last for Hemmens?

While the collection this season might be a record-setting one, this could be the last time that the giveaway will be held at the Hemmens Cultural Center.

This year, the city of Elgin began charging anyone who uses the city-owned and operated venue, including nonprofits that formally could use the facility at a reduced rate or gratis.

Toy giveaway organizers were able to find a benefactor to cover the $2,500 rental fee being charged, but they are concerned that unless they find funding for 2013 — or the city reconsiders its stance — they might have to move the event.

Hyatt explained that what makes the Hemmens the optimal place for the giveaway is its central location. The layout of the building is such that it expedites the process, which involves a room where parents or guardians register for gifts and another area where they pick up the toys.

Hyatt and others have been working on the project since August.

The 18th Annual Elgin Community Holiday Toy Drive is sponsored by the Grand Victoria Casino and the Grand Victoria Foundation, along with co-sponsors The Courier-News and WRMN 1410 AM Radio.

While the crisis center is the lead agency for the giveaway, Hyatt said that in addition to the Marines, the effort also involves quite a few other local groups and businesses including the Girl Scouts, the Grand Victoria Casino and its foundation, Elgin Township, and Chase Bank. Volunteers from most of those organizations — as well as individuals and church groups including Christ Community and Our Redeemer’s United Methodist — also work the giveaway days.

The Grand Victoria Foundation presented a check in the amount of $4,000 to the Community Crisis Center in 2011 and again this holiday season.

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