“Boy cart! Girl cart! Boy cart!” Katie Stricker shouted with a smile and a cup of coffee in hand as she directed Happy Slapowitz’s Toy Bash volunteers Sunday morning at Target in Cape Girardeau.
As a volunteer approached with an empty cart, Stricker paused for a moment, then shouted, “Boy cart!”
“Thank you, God!” said the volunteer with a laugh and a sigh of relief as he made his way to the toy aisle.
The managerial responsibility is one in which Stricker — secretary for the annual toy bash — has grown comfortable over the decade, roughly the length of time she has volunteered for the local charity.
Volunteers gathered at the store early. By 8 a.m., they were ready to retrieve cartfulls of toys for the toy bash, a local campaign benefiting the Marine Corps League’s Toys for Tots Foundation. Once toys are donated, the foundation provides less fortunate children in local communities with new, unwrapped toys for Christmas.
“I love Christmas, and I love kids,” said Stricker, who is the associate director and lead teacher at the University School for Young Children. “How could I not keep coming back?”
The toy bash began 18 years ago, according to president Ryan Eftink. It wasn’t until 2009 the charity became known as Happy Slapowitz’s Toy Bash.
“We have over 65 volunteers that help us throughout the year with the toy bash,” Eftink said Sunday. “This is kind of the fun time for them, because if you can go and just pick out whatever you want, that’s awesome.”
As dozens of volunteers gathered in the cafe area of the store, Eftink issued a rundown of the operation at hand. Each volunteer would retrieve a cart, fill it with gifts and make for the checkout.
Citing safety reasons, Eftink declined to share the exact dollar amount raised, but Stricker reported nearly 4,365 toys had been purchased Sunday with the donations raised Friday night.
Boxes nearly 3 feet tall were filled to the brim with purchased items and then loaded into two trailers to be delivered to the Marine Corps’ temporary barracks.
“Last year, they were able to give four toys per child, including a stocking stuffer and a book of some sort,” Eftink said of the Marines. “It’s what we do.”
Though the charity is directly partnered with Toys for Tots, Eftink said they have also partnered in the past with the Cape Jaycees, which has its own Toybox program to benefit children in the City of Cape Girardeau. Eftink said Toys for Tots takes care of children in Cape Girardeau County, and the two programs “help each other out” whenever possible.
“If someone needs more toys, the Marines have always been more than willing to open up their doors for them,” Eftink said.
He has been behind the toy bash all these years, but Eftink said he didn’t fully realize the gravity of what he’d been doing for area children until he saw his now 20-month-old daughter receive gifts on her first Christmas last year.
“I saw the joy in her face and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we get to do that for kids across the Southeast Missouri region,’” Eftink said. “I always loved doing it, but that was like one of those aha moments.”
Each year, downtown businesses partner with the charity to host bands and food — provided by Eftink’s business Smokin Brothers — at several locations. For entry, participants can either purchase the annual toy bash T-shirt or bring a new, unwrapped gift for donation.
This year’s event had more than 60 sponsors and took place Friday night, featuring 21 bands and 13 venues. Though the T-shirt and donation gained participants access to all venues, Eftink was quick to point out the event is not meant to be a “bar night.”
“The event is an event for [people ages] 21 and up, like to 121,” Eftink said. “ … But it isn’t really a bar night. It’s more of just the community coming together, having a good time, throwing toys in, listening to good music playing … there was something for everybody spread throughout.”
The shopping day has taken place at Target for the last two years, according to the Cape Girardeau store’s general manager Matt Gossage.
“We’re super excited to get to host this,” said Gossage, who has attended the toy bash with his friends and family for at least eight years. “I think this is why relationships exist.”
On Sunday, the store offered free coffee to toy bash volunteers from its Starbucks cafe and gave a 5% discount to the total purchase amount, Gossage said.
“That’s really what we would offer any one of our guests any day on their Target RedCard,” Gossage said. “So, we figured this makes sense to be able to that for the toy bash, too.”
In an effort to help volunteers purchase the most toys with the fundraised amount, Gossage said the store also brought in “clearanced-out items” from other stores that initially cost about $25 to $50, but could be sold to the toy bash for a marked down price of $5 to $10.
“That takes our average down so we can spend on more toys,” Gossage said.
Jackson resident Tom Frey, a friend of Eftink, said he has been a toy bash volunteer for four years and is in charge of gathering raffle items from local businesses and pushing sales of raffle tickets.
“I volunteered … and then Ryan volunteered me to be in charge of the raffles,” Frey said while assembling collection boxes Sunday. “I actually love this, I enjoy doing it for the children, I love the excitement. It’s just something I love to do.”
Virgil Jones, a Cape Girardeau resident and owner of ServiceMaster, said Sunday he has been a volunteer with the toy bash for five years.
Jones is also the president of the Cape Noon Optimist Club — which donated $1,000 to the toy bash this year — and said he has a special place in his heart for serving young people.
“This is for children [whose] families can’t afford toys,” Jones said. “This kind of fits into my whole philosophy of what I like, to give back to the children.”
He’s also a longtime Boy Scouts of America leader and said the toy bash charity is a “perfect fit” for his lifetime work of helping children grow.
“To me, it’s heartwarming to know that there’s children out there that are going to get toys for Christmas that otherwise might not, because of the efforts of all of these people,” Jones said. “That’s my whole reason.”
Stricker echoed that sentiment as the reason she continues to volunteer with the toy bash.
“This is something that’s so near and dear to my heart,” Stricker said. “Watching an entire community come together to give a Christmas to kids that normally wouldn’t have one is just an amazing thing to be part of.”
Next year’s event will take place Dec. 11 and Happy Slapowitz’s Toy Bash T-shirts will be on sale beginning Nov. 1 at Pastimes Antiques in Cape Girardeau.
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