Thursday, Jun 20, 2019

Give a little bit

Joe McLachlan approached the modest home with two trash bags filled with presents. It was Christmas morning, which made this a last-minute gift distribution. He knocked and the family opened the door for him, giving McLachlan a glimpse inside of their undecorated, humble abode — a couch, a chair, no TV and an unadorned Christmas tree with no presents underneath.

“When I got there, the family opened the door, and there was a grandma, grandpa, aunt and uncle, mom and dad, two or three kids, and they just circled and hugged me,” McLachlan said. “It was really cool. And all I had was two or three trash bags of toys.”

To this day, that memory continues to motivate McLachlan to ensure that children have presents to open on Christmas Day.

McLachlan, a Spanish teacher at Richmond-Burton High School, served in the Marine Corps Reserve, which oversees the national Toys for Tots organization.

In an effort to bring Toys for Tots to the community, McLachlan, as a first-year teacher in 1999, launched a donation drive at the high school. He didn’t know how many contributions to expect, but he supposed that even a sparse turnout would be better than nothing.

But the amount that he collected was enough for much more than just one toy. That year, McLachlan accrued $600. With such a sizable yield produced by rather meager efforts, McLachlan envisioned the benefit that could come from a more determined and collective endeavor.

“The next year after that [in 2000] we did more of a concerted effort,” he said. “The kids knew what we were doing, and that year we made nearly $1,200.”

Before 2009, the city of Harvard distributed toys and food baskets to families in need at Christmas time. But the city was economically strained during the recession in 2008, prompting Mayor Jay Nolan to entreat area churches to assume responsibility for the outreach. In response, seven Harvard area churches banded together to assemble donations, toys and funds for the families, birthing the Harvard Christmas Giving Outreach, which operates under the banner of Toys for Tots.

The Harvard churches comprising the program are First Presbyterian Church, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Trinity Lutheran, Solid Rock Community Church, New Hope Community Church, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church. The churches divide the number of families and children in need of gifts on their estimated ability of how many families they can assist.

To collect donations and gifts, teams of volunteers will stand outside of the Harvard Walmart on Black Friday, Nov. 28, and two Saturdays, Dec. 6 and 13, to collect donations and toys from shoppers. In past years, the outpouring of support from the community has been tangible, McLachlan said.

“If only I [could’ve] videotaped each moment of the community’s generosity in the last 20 years,” he said. “The generosity of this town makes you just beam with pride. Even people at their bottom end, in their worst moment, still find something they can do to help.”

“I’ve enjoyed my time at Walmart and seeing the really magnificent generosity of people as they respond,” said the Rev. Jeff Borgerson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Harvard. “We’ve had people going into Walmart and coming out with a whole shopping cart of toys. We get a lot of generous donations from people in town. And the people in the congregations respond very generously.”

First Presbyterian Church has a storage area where toys and food are collected. Then, about 12 days before Christmas, each of the seven Harvard churches has a shopping team that goes into the storage area, with parental wish lists in hand, and gather the presents for their designated families. On a designated distribution day, parents will come in to pick up the presents for their children.

“People are so grateful and so humble when we give them what really comes down to one or two gifts and an item of clothing,” McLachlan said.

For Borgerson, one of the most rewarding nights is when the entire collection of donated toys is strewn across nine 30-foot-length tables for the volunteers to conveniently pick them for the children.

“All the toys that have been collected are laid out on the tables in our fellowship halls,” he said, “and after about 45 minutes, all of the gifts have been collected. Then the toys all get distributed and hauled out in cars.”

In 2012, 367 families and 905 children were assisted. And last year, the outreach provided gifts for 402 families, 998 children, and supplied 307 Christmas dinner baskets for families in Harvard.

“What we don’t want is kids not getting presents on Christmas Day,” McLachlan said. “We do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen. Honest to goodness, if it means I have to deliver gifts on Christmas Day, I’ll do it.”

Cash collection boxes for the outreach are in place in Harvard locations including Subway, Kelley’s Restaurant and First Place Promotions. Toy drop-off boxes are available in several locations including the Harvard Chamber of Commerce and City Hall, all Harvard schools and the district office, Mercy Hospital, Anytime Fitness, Harvard Diggins Library and Trinity Lutheran, First Presbyterian and First United Methodist churches.

Sign up to receive Christmas gifts will be help from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 8, from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, and from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, at Trinity Lutheran Church, 504. E. Diggins St. For information, call 815-943-6468.