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Toys for Tots soldiers on in N.J., despite theft, storm

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. — To the uninitiated, it would seem all is well at the Marine Corps League Detachment 194's Toys for Tots headquarters in the former Value City at Egg Harbor Township's Shore Mall.

With about a month to go until Christmas, the group has in its storage room dozens of boxes and bags filled with toys of all sizes. But while the toys may seem abundant, the local effort is only at about half strength at the season's most critical point — thousands of collected toys were stolen from a locked trailer in late October, Detachment 194 Junior Vice Commandant Bob Fudala said.

Couple that theft with a devastating superstorm that has turned many residents — some of them last year's donors — into recipients, and the Marine Corps Reserve-run 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 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 its pre-Thanksgiving collection comes from Kerbeck Cadillac Chevrolet's annual Corvette Toy Run, through which 300 to 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, of Brigantine.

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.

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"I've been getting phone calls, as you see, and we picked up some places that we never had before," Vesely said. "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 near 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 — although Vesely has pledged that every child who wants a toy will get one, although they may get one fewer than in previous years.

While this is not the first time facing trouble for Detachment 194, which has run the Atlantic County effort since as far back as its members can remember, this year is by far the worst, organizers said.

Still, the volunteers are optimistic — and while some may see their supply as half-empty, they see it as half-full.

"We've had years where we thought that donations were going to be down, but things have worked out great," said Assistant Coordinator Charles Fields, of the Scullville section of Egg Harbor Township."We've been lucky. This is the first year this has ever happened to us. Hopefully things will work out."

To apply for toy pickup or for a list of dropoff locations in your town, visit toysfortots.org.
 

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