As published in the Record Journal Friday December 21, 2012
By Russell Blair
WALLINGFORD — Hundreds of toys were piled to the ceiling at Gaetano’s Tavern on Main Thursday night, but they’ll soon be in the hands of needy children throughout the area.
Jim Fitzsimmons and Holly Lafond have organized a Toys for Tots donation event for 22 years. And each year people seem to be more generous.
“Every year it gets bigger,” Fitzsimmons said as he scanned the packed restaurant. “I’d like to think it’s not the need, but the people that donate [that] grows.”
Last year the childhood friends collected 3,100 toys, and they expected to surpass that number this year. More than 2,000 toys had been counted even before donations of puzzles, Lego sets, stuffed animals and bikes began rolling in around 5:30 p.m. Fitzsimmons said late Thursday that the duo had collected 3,695 toys, a new high.
Lafond said a couple who wished to remain anonymous heard about the toy drive in the newspaper and donated more than 900 Beanie Babies. Some years, she and Fitzsimmons think about taking a break from hosting the event, but they inevitably get a call from someone asking when it’s going to be held.
“What are we going to tell them?” Lafond said. “That we’re not going to do it?”
Gaetano’s offers free food to people who want to stick around and socialize. Lafond said the event is like a Christmas party and that the whole town is invited. Peter Aron and his wife, Sandra, were stopping by for their first time Thursday night.
“This is a worthy cause, and we’re happy to make a contribution,” Peter Aron said.
The couple said they heard how large the event was, but were still shocked when they walked in and noticed a large wall of toys piled against the front windows of the restaurant. Sandra Aron said her reason for coming was simple.
“No child should be without a gift on Christmas,” she said.
Marine 1st Sgt. Victor Cardenas said it was the first Toys for Tots event he had been to and he was impressed with the community’s generosity. The Marine Corps administers the Toys for Tots program and will help to distribute the toys collected at the Wallingford event.
“The way the economy is, it’s great to see all of these people are still giving,” Cardenas said.
Lafond said she was impressed with the turnout considering how many people have been focusing their efforts on the victims of Hurricane Sandy and more recently the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Though she briefly considered putting off the event because of that tragedy, Lafond said she thinks it has driven more people to come out and do something that benefits children.
“My daughter told me there are still kids that need toys no matter what,” she said.