There were boxes of toys everywhere. Stacks of large rectangles and small squares lined one wall.
Open ones showed the breadth of content: a plastic dinosaur stood still on one, a giant teddy bear on another, and a giant white stuffed unicorn on another, its striped hooves – blue, yellow, and pink – hanging from the earth on mountains of toys.
The somewhat unusual sight for a hallway in the Toyota Center offered a glimpse of how the Saskatoon Children’s Charity was adapting its annual Christmas program to the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.
Approximately 850 volunteers were expected to pack the toys – approximately 85,000 – in bags sorted by age group and gender that they plan to distribute to an estimated 12,000 youths in the charity’s first drive-through distribution on Friday and Saturday.
“It was the most daunting task of my 31-year career,” said Laura Ward, president and chief executive officer of the organization, in an interview when volunteers were bundling the toys. “Thirty-one years of that, I’ve never done anything so big.”
Typically, the organization receives their donations, sets up a shop in the George R. Brown Convention Center, sorts the toys, and lets parents fill a bag with three or four toys for their children. But this year the charity was unable to use the space and, with the pandemic still raging, couldn’t guarantee everyone’s welfare as they shuffled thousands of people through tables, rummaging through toys, picking them up and putting them indoors.
A few months ago when Ward was arranging her thoughts to figure out how to keep the annual event alive, she remembered missile owner Tilman Fertitta being on the charity’s board of directors, she said. She called him and asked what he thought of the charity at the stadium. He was on board.
However, other logistical obstacles remained. Where would the charity find tables to sort toys? The missiles had tables. Where would boxes come from to hold the toys before they were packed, and then the bags? The Marines, already working with the organization as part of their Toys for Tots program, offered some, Ward said.
“It kept me up at night. I didn’t have a method. My foolproof method was the same as I’ve used for years, ”she said.
Ward and her staff of five chatted several times a week for months and slowly developed a method that was introduced on Monday.
On a final afternoon the process was fully displayed. At the beginning, the volunteers separated the toys by age group. Next, they were taken to another designated area in the same hall, where three of them were placed in sacks that also contained stuffers like fidgety spinners and books.
Another part of the volunteers labeled the bags and tied them with a zipper. Eventually these bags were thrown into boxes and taken to a lounge.
In an attempt to streamline distribution and keep it contactless while ensuring families in need of the toy get it, the charity sent an email more than 14,000 large pieces of paper – taking into account the wear and tear – must be approved and registered Families with a bar have a code that is scanned on every car that shows up to pick up toys.
“The volunteers will scan it, they will see what goes in the trunk, they will throw it in the trunk,” said Ward, tapping a table twice. “Tap the trunk and the car will go forward.”
This is how the distribution should go. But mid-week, Ward said she was still not sure how smooth it would be, considering that thousands of cars are expected to roll through eight stations. Even with planned road closures and the help of police officers, many things can go wrong.
The charity may also be short of toys and volunteers. The charity was already experiencing a shortage of volunteers as companies that had previously offered their time in groups were pulled back this year due to the pandemic. The weather, like the pandemic conditions, is beyond the control of Ward and her colleagues.
“What we’re going to do outside on Friday and Saturday will be nothing short of a miracle,” said Ward. “I hope the weather lasts and my other hope is that the kids are just happy when they get their toys. That they really have a merry, merry Christmas. “
Would she do it again if the circumstances persist? Ask her on Saturday afternoon, she said.