ST. PETERSBURG — Christmas is like a birthright to those who grew up knowing there would always be an ornately decorated tree with presents spilling out from under it regardless of the rest of the year’s financial uncertainty.
Yet for children in hundreds of Pinellas County families for whom keeping the electricity on each month is a struggle, there’s no promise of a holiday haul.
A local nonprofit organization has spent decades trying to restore that promise.
The Christmas Toy Shop, now in its 91st year, is a nonprofit organization that refurbishes toys and bicycles for needy children. The volunteer-run workshop and distribution center at 550 16th St. N., just north of Tropicana Field, also purchases new toys, bikes and bike helmets with donated dollars. Its clientele consists of families that receive government assistance and can’t afford gifts for their little ones.
The faded letters spelling the shop’s name on the building’s red-and-white facade aren’t a reflection of the lively scene inside.
“We’re the best kept secret in St. Pete,” said Lynda Owen, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
Over four days that are scattered throughout December, hordes of parents wait their turn to pick out a small cache of new or good-as-new toys, books, sporting goods and art supplies. Each family gets one bicycle.
“They line up, and if they’ve got the right paperwork, they get free toys,” she said.
Year-round, save for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, volunteers spend three days a week washing, restoring and sorting secondhand toys for the children of some 900 Pinellas County families referred to them by the state Department of Children and Families each year.
“If it’s not nice enough to give to our grandchildren, we don’t give it out,” Owen said.
Donated bikes and toys that aren’t salvageable are given to secondhand shops or sold.
Most of the money the nonprofit receives comes from donations — including $10,000 this year from a group of St. Petersburg women called the Christmas Belles — and goes toward buying new bicycle helmets and some new toys.
The toy workshop is massive, with shelf upon shelf packed with board games, miniature trucks, sock monkeys, dolls, Legos and stuffed animals. All are kept in bins meticulously organized by toy type and size. In one corner there are drawers full of dice and other game pieces that a donated Monopoly or Operation game may be missing. On the other side of the room are the flat pieces of plastic that secure batteries into electronics.
Retiree Dan Surplus files them down so they fit into remote controls with missing backs — whatever is needed to make electronic toys work the way they’re supposed to.
“Those that talk, I check those out to make sure they sing or dance or what’s necessary,” he said.
Surplus and his wife, who sews clothing for donated dolls, volunteer year-round.
“We’ve been doing it seven years now, and we’re hooked on it,” he said. “You could see the appreciation by some of the people. Some of them, they cry. They’re so appreciative. Because they have nothing.”
When the toys and bikes are in like-new shape, they’re placed on shelves in the distribution area, where parents walk the rows with volunteers to pick out a couple of age-appropriate items for each child. Those who work with qualifying families say the nonprofit makes a huge difference for families that can’t afford Christmas on their own.
“Our office frequently refers families to the Christmas Toy Shop who aren’t in financial position to buy toys for their children during the holidays,” said Mike Carroll, regional managing director with the Department of Children and Families. “We are so thankful for the toy shop for allowing these well-deserving kids to have a special holiday.”