Making sure it’s merry

ALPENA – Volunteers for The Salvation Army of Alpena County’s Toytown worked Friday to make a merry Christmas for hundreds of needy Northeast Michigan families.

After a lengthy setup, Friday was the day when applicants for Christmas toys and food baskets came to collect, Maj. Joan Stoker said. They were taken through an orderly process to make sure they got everything they signed up for, from hats and gloves, books and toys to potatoes and other staple foods. Overall, 990 people were helped at what can be a difficult time of year for many families.

Toytown is organized to ensure people get the right stuff in a timely fashion. The day was divided into two four-hour sessions, and applicants set an appointment so around 12 families came through every 15 minutes, Stoker said. With volunteers leading recipients through the various stations, there was never a long line.

“That’s so we don’t have 100 people in line, that’s no way to treat families having difficulties,” she said.

Once applicants from a needy family arrived, they checked in and got a card telling volunteers what they’d signed up to receive, Stoker said. They’ll also get a food voucher to buy meat and other fresh foods at Neiman’s.

Then, volunteers led them through the various stations. First was the mitten tree, where every child got at least one pair of gloves or mittens, a hat, a scarf and an item of clothing. Children of all ages also got two books at Blizzard of Books, donated by Friends of the Alpena County Library, then a stocking stuffer at the next station.

At the Angel Tree table, families gathered the toys donated for their children, Stoker said. For this program, donors take a card with a child’s age, gender and the kinds of toys he or she would like. These toys are sorted, bagged and numbered. Each family coming to collect could take an item from a nearby table covered with Christmas decorations, hats and gloves and other items.

Aneka Wagner has been volunteering for Toytown for three years, she said. She and volunteers Wendy Woods and Kathy Keen spent hundreds of hours going through applications, then hundreds more sorting through toys for 478 children. She has lots of reasons for putting in so much time, and children are the most important one.

“You don’t want a kid to go through Christmas without getting anything,” she said. “It’s supporting our community, but most of all, the kids.”

Keen agreed.

“I think some of us feel that we’re blessed and we want to share that feeling, to make someone smile, make their days brighter,” she said.

Joyce Demski was helping families pick out stocking stuffers. Like Wagner, she’s also been volunteering for three years, and does so to return the favor. The Salvation Army helped her family after their house burned when she was 10, finding a place for the family to stay. She’s done just a little bit of everything over the years, including packing up the many food boxes.

Each family got enough for a Christmas meal, plus three or four days, Stoker said. Home Depot donated the boxes, Pepsi donated beverages and Styma Potato Farms donated potatoes. The boxes had pasta, beans, canned vegetables and fruits and other kitchen standbys, plus a holiday treat. Volunteers packed them according to Stoker’s guidelines, and put some extra effort into it as well.

“These are the hints I tell them,” she said, pointing to a list of items, “but they went even farther than that to think through meals and servings.”

Back by the check-in table, volunteer Steve Davies waited for an applicant to escort through the stations. He and wife Carrie were helping for the first time after several years of participating in Angel Tree.

“Part of this makes me sad to know there are so many people in need, but it’s also a selfish act because it makes me feel good,” he said.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at