When Junior Service League members go Christmas shopping, the world around them is preparing for the holidays - the Fourth of July holidays.
Christmas truly begins in July for Blount County’s JSL members. That’s when they normally begin picking out the items they’ll buy for underprivileged children served through the group’s Toys for Blount County program.
JSL members wrapped up their annual effort Dec. 10 when the club members and an army of volunteers got together at the National Guard Armory on West Lamar Alexander Parkway to pack the toys in boxes. The boxes were delivered Dec. 16 during the annual Empty Pantry Fund effort that distributes food and presents to area needy families.
“It really is a year around event,” said Maria Greene, president of Junior Service League of Blount County. “The only breath we get is right after we get toys packed and we can breathe a sigh of relief.
“We shop in June for all the toys so by June we’re working hard. Our canisters aren’t out until Christmas, but for us it is non-stop all year to raise money to buy toys for 1,400 children,” Greene said. “We don’t just give one toy, we give a whole box of toys, and it takes a lot of work year around.”
Buying toys in June to give in December could be a challenge but the JSL members use their own children to gauge what is going to be popular. “A lot of us have children, so that helps when we go to pick out toys. My daughter is 6, and I know what she likes,” Greene said. “It’s not a fast process. We want to find things they’ll like and will enjoy opening on Christmas morning. It’s not a quick, go-in-pick-something process. We really put a lot of thought into it.”
The number of children the JSL members shop for isn’t fixed in June. “We don’t know our exact number. We guess-timate,” she said.
They get more solid figures after the clearing house process which occurs annually near the end of October at the United Way on East Broadway Avenue. “People call in and tell us names and how many children and give us information. The first question is ‘Do you want food or food and toys?’ People with children get toys and food,” Greene said.
The JSL president said Toys for Blount County serves children from birth to age 14. “If we have a call and their child is over 14, we refer them to guidance counselors at school. There is something set up through the schools,” she said.
Once the JSL knows the exact number of children they’re buying for, they coordinate with their supplier, Star Sales in Knoxville. “Then we tweak the number to get an exact number of toys,” she said.
The club president said it takes about $30,000 to buy the toys each year. “That gives us a year to raise $30,000. The road races (Master Craft Mile and Foothills Sprint) are major fundraisers, and we depend on those to bring in the majority of funds,” she said.
The club has 50 active members and 204 sustaining members. Fundraisers for the Toys for Blount County include:
In February, there is the pancake breakfast at Aubrey’s Restaurant.
Master Craft Mile in November and the Foothills Sprint in May are the two road races that raise money for the program.
JSL members sell cookbooks for the effort.
New this year was participating in the Belk department store at Foothills Mall Charity Sale.
Also new, the Royal Oaks Events Facility is donating a portion of the proceeds from their 2008 New Year’s Eve Ball to the Junior Service League of Maryville. Anyone interested in tickets should contact the club via e-mail at email@example.com.
The Tomato Head restaurant on West Broadway Avenue in downtown is offering a “Toys for Blount County - Special of the Day” on Dec. 20. All the money from the “sandwich of the day” will go to Toys for Blount County.
The club also puts canisters at a variety of businesses throughout Blount County.
Kroger’s grocery stores in Alcoa and Maryville also are raising money. The cashiers ask shoppers if they would like to donate a $1 to Toys for Blount County when they are ringing up customers’ orders. “In three weeks we raised over $1,500 total from both locations,” Greene said.
Schools also get into the effort. Students at almost every school throughout the county and in Maryville and Alcoa participate. “They do fundraising and toy collections,” she said.
Other companies like Denso and Alcoa, Inc., also help. This year, Alcoa, Inc., donated $8,000 and Wal-Mart in Alcoa added an addition $1,000 when the group came to the store to shop.
“It was fun,” said Greene. “Alcoa employees went to Wal-Mart with us. (The toys) were added in with toys we had previously purchased.”
The change and dollars collected in the Toys for Blount County canisters around town also help, said Greene. “We would like to extend a very special thank you to all the local businesses that have allowed us to place our canisters there during the holiday season,” Greene said. “The money collected in these canisters goes directly to purchasing toys and personal care products for over 1,500 Blount County children.”
Sometimes there are special donations that warm the hearts of the club members.
Five-year-old Alyssa Weiss, daughter of Jeremie and Jamie Weiss, came to the Alcoa, Inc., day of shopping with her parents and other Alcoa employees. Alyssa, confined to a wheelchair because of the effects of Mitochondrial disorder, had an engaging smile and was quick to answer why she donated her allowance to help children served by Toys for Blount County. “Cause they didn’t have money for Christmas,” she said as her parents Jeremie and Jamie watched.
“We were talking about how much we were going to donate, and she overheard and said she wanted to give money,” said her father. “She gave $2 of her allowance.”
“She loves to help people,” Jamie said. “She’s a very special girl in many ways.”
Ike Russell with Alcoa, Inc., said this was the first year he has participated in the effort. “I feel good about doing this for the kids. Anytime I can do something like this, I enjoy it.”
Malcolm Murphy, location manager with Alcoa, Inc., Tennessee Operations, said the amount raised this year outdid last year’s total. While $5,000 was raised last year, the total this year was $8,000. The company donates $5 for each injury-free event that is reported by an employee.
Melissa Copelan, community affairs manager with Alcoa, Inc., said an injury-free event is a proactive way the company rewards employees for identifying a situation that could result in an injury. The $5 the company donates for each IFE goes to a community chest and donations to charities are made from it, she said.
The $8,000 was the accumulation of two months of IFE reporting. The donation was made possible through the joint efforts of both white collar workers and the members of the United Steel Workers Local 309, Murphy said.
Copelan said the donation made by the company on behalf of employees who are committed to safety in the workplace helped make a difference in children’s lives. “It’s a reality check,” said Copelan. “We all need to be thankful for all we have.”
Boyce Smith, manager of Wal-Mart, said he was impressed with what Junior Service League does, and Wal-Mart employees enjoy helping them. “You’re helping people simply because it’s the right thing to do.”
Smith said the Alcoa employees and the Wal-Mart associates were enjoying the effort. “You can see it in the Alcoa employees’ eyes and in the eyes of our associates,” he said.
JSL member Whitney Cox said she enjoyed the event. “It makes me want to raise more money. It makes me want to make others aware of what we do,” she said.
Robyn Blair with Denso, Inc., said the company made a donation and employees also collected money and toys on their own. The company donated not only to Toys for Blount County, but also Sanitation Santa and Head Start, said Blair. The donation was made through the company’s contributions committee.
Although the seed money has to be collected all year, the JSL members saw a big difference when they were able to add the seasonal donations to their boxes this year. “Those supplement what we paid for and make a big difference,” Greene said. “It works out great.”
While it normally takes about two days to pack all the gifts into boxes, the group finished in one day this year.
“We had so many people from the community who wanted to help this year that we started on Monday morning at 8 o’clock, and we had all the extra toys lined up and sorted,” said Greene. “We were fortunate to have help in packing boxes from Personal Computer Systems employees. That was big help, as were the Maryville Key Club members.”
The success this year was especially gratifying as the club had to change the name of the drive this year from Toys for Tots to Toys for Blount County at the request of the U.S. Marine Corps who do a Toys for Tots program. The two programs were never affiliated, just had a history of using the same name.
Putting it together
Packing day is Christmas for JSL members, said Greene.
“When packing day comes, it is exciting. Everyone has such a good time. It’s everyone’s favorite part, and it really brings everything together,” she said. “It’s sad that there are that many who need help, but it is a wonderful feeling to make a difference. It’s a great feeling to be able to help.”
Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said he was “very, very familiar” with Junior Service League, in part because his wife, Janice, was president of Junior Service League at one time. “I’ve known about their community service and good works they do. Toys for Blount County is a wonderful, wonderful program. It’s one of those programs the community should be proud of,” he said. “When you look at the face of a child who is not going to have much Christmas yet there it is because of what Junior Service League does, it brings it home.”
Maryville Mayor Joe Swann said Toys for Blount County is an unbelievable program. “They have done an unbelievable job of serving a great number of kids over the years. The program continues to have strength to it. It’s an absolutely wonderful part of what happens around here at Christmas,” Swann said. “If you look at how good it makes kids feel, it makes you feel like this is what Christmas is.”
Alcoa Mayor Don Mull said charity programs such as Toys for Blount County are important for the people they serve. “Our community is so much better when we have these programs in place because they do such a good job,” he said.
Greene said the tradition of Junior Service League of Maryville is a strong one. The active membership could not take on the monumental task of serving so many families and children without the hours and hours of help from our sustaining members.
“We are proud of our heritage and very thankful for the continued help and support from the ladies who have served in years past and continue to help today,” Greene said.
For more information about Junior Service League, contact Maria Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org.