Extra help for the holidays

Despite COVID-19 hurdles, Holiday Helpers held one of its biggest toy, food and clothing drives ever this year

Gifford Hosler, fire police captain for the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, carries a plush pegasus Saturday at the department’s toy drive for Holiday Helpers. (Provided photo — Eva Stinson)

SARANAC LAKE — It is hard for Patti Ploof not to tear up while talking about the 183 kids who will open gifts on Christmas morning from the Holiday Helpers toy drive she organizes with Dawn Rogers.

She gets choked up thinking about the generosity of the community, volunteers’ hard work and what these presents and food baskets mean to children and families struggling financially.

The toy drive almost didn’t happen this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ploof said.

In September, she and Rogers spoke and decided to not hold the event this year, saying the pandemic would make it too complicated and dangerous.

This decision kept them up at night — literally. The next morning the two called each other at the exact same time to tell the other they wanted to reverse their decision.

The Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad is happy to help transport gifts instead of patients. (Provided photo — Eva Stinson)

“We decided this year, more than ever, there would be a bigger need,” Ploof said.

She said they “had to do something” and would figure out how to do it safely.

On Saturday, the Saranac Lake Baptist Church opened its doors for the toy drive, and now the building is packed full of toys, games, clothes and food for the 91 families that signed up to receive them this year. Ploof said she has been involved in this gift drive for 40 years and that it usually serves 70 to 80 families. This year did not bring as big a jump as she thought it might, but the list has a lot of new names this year.

“It was something we had to do, but we weren’t sure it was going to be done well,” Ploof said. “You know what? It’s going to be just as good as it ever was.”

She said the drive was “phenomenal” and considered it one of their best yet.

Ploof said they did it safely with everyone wearing masks, collecting donations outdoors in a tent and being flexible.

Ploof said every hurdle set up this year by the virus was easily cleared, thanks to the community’s support.

She said civic organizations always fund the drive, and they usually have plenty of money in by October. Since the groups could not meet all year, she had thought they would not be planning to provide the funds.

“We thought, ‘We’re done. How can we do this with no money?'” Ploof said. “All of a sudden, everything we need, we have.”

She said individuals from these organizations were sending in donations on their own.

Food was expensive this year, Ploof said, but after a quick request on the group’s Facebook page, Kelly Morgan, who organizes the food baskets, said she received a donation to buy all the turkeys they need.

Ploof said the tags with clothing requests have all been taken; all requests will be filled. The donation box at the Best Western hotel has already filled up twice.

The Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department holds an annual toy drive to help Holiday Helpers, and its members also volunteer to move the heavy items indoors. They did all that Saturday in the parking lot of the Baptist church. Families showed up at the Baptist church with armfuls of gifts, and community organizations brought supplies by the truckload. State Police Troop B showed up with toys their members had donated in a drive organized by Trooper Jennifer Fleishman.

“As the day went on, the pile of toys grew,” SLVFD member Jim Stinson wrote in a blog post on the department’s website. “It is hard to not be moved by the community’s generosity. This year was a huge success.”

Things began slowing down after a couple of hours, but then there was a rush at the very end. The Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department hosted a toy drop event at their its own fire station, too.

“Cars were flying in; they were asking, ‘Am I too late?’ Then just as the last car left, the Bloomingdale fire department comes roaring in with its sirens,” Ploof said. “Everybody who donated last year donated more. It was like the quarantine showed them people need this.”

She said she was “blown away.”

“It’s the community. The village just pulls together. It’s amazing to me,” she said. “It’s sad that there’s such a need in a village this size, and I can’t imagine in big cities how things get done for people.”

She said it feels really good to do something like this, and to see how it helps people.

“On Dec. 12 the families will pick up the presents and food baskets at the Saranac Lake Baptist Church where the unwrapped presents will be sorted by volunteers who arrange the presents in age appropriate groups,” Stinson wrote. “Normally this process involves 25 to 30 volunteers. This year due to COVID safety this mission will be accomplished by a cadre of only approximately 10.”

For now, the bounty of toys sits at at the church.

“It’s hard because, every Christmas morning, that’s what you think of,” Ploof said. “You know, you think of these kids getting these toys and how they feel. Some of them, this is all they get.”

Ploof said this is why she thinks it is important the event went on this year.

“I’m sleeping much better at night, let me tell you,” she said.


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