Free Toy Shop Brings Cheer To Sandy's Displaced Families

Dec 21, 2012
Originally published on December 21, 2012 4:21 pm

The New York borough of Staten Island was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. Almost two months after the storm hit, many residents will not be back in their homes by the Christmas holiday.

One organization is trying to make the season a bit brighter for uprooted families with a free toy store on the island. This all-volunteer effort looks like a real toy store, but it feels more like a community of neighbors.

The shop boasts shelves filled with toys like model cars, Monopoly, dolls, craft supplies and books — almost everything you would want in a regular toy store.

Two Toys Per Child, Unlimited Stocking Stuffers

Waleska Bhatti, who has three children, points to a rocking horse a child can ride. "I got the little horsey for the baby and I got some dolls for the 7-year-old," Bhatti says.

Visitors get two toys for each child, but the rules aren't strict. "Look around. Choose six items," volunteer Madeline Bergin tells one mother. "If you can't decide let us know; we're very lenient. When you get to this part of the room there are stocking stuffers, [it's] unlimited — help yourself."

Bergin gives every shopper personal attention, asking each one if his or her family is back at home.

Shopper Grace Paterno has come by. She says she lost all her Christmas decorations in her shed — along with her everything in her home's first floor — in the storm. She picks some toys, but what she really wants, she says, is a tree.

She's in luck; someone has donated one, Bergin tells her.

"Oh thank you, God bless," says Paterno, near tears. Her family is still not back in their home, but she hopes to be there for Christmas morning, she says, "so my kids can open their presents."

There's a system when shoppers enter the store, but it takes less than a minute to get started with shopping. "We take their name, their address, their FEMA number, the amount of children," Bergin explains. "So far, we have had 405 families and we have given out 2,200 toys since we started."

The organization Where To Turn, which began after the Sept. 11 attacks, is behind this effort. Founder Dennis McKeon recalls that 29 people in the nearby Parish of St. Clare died in the World Trade Center.

Now the group takes on all kinds of tragedies, but it still has its roots in Sept. 11. Bergin lost her husband, a firefighter, that day. "Now it's my turn to sit behind a desk and help people, because people were so generous and kind to me," she says.

An All-Donation Effort

McKeon had the idea to collect toys for Sandy-affected children about six weeks ago. Rather than hold a one-time party, he says he thought, "let's open a store, so that we can give [toys] to more people."

He got the space for the shop from a union local. McKeon, who works for AT&T, is here on his lunch hour. "Everything you see in here is donated," he says, pointing around proudly. "The tables, the shelves, everything. We came in, we set it up as a toy store and the rest is history."

Donations have come from as far away from Massachusetts and upstate New York. In fact, Bergin says, "random people off the street just walk in with stuff."

Shopper Eileen Pepel clutches a soft beige stuffed animal in her arms."I got a basketball. I got gift cards. And I got this stuffed puppy, that's just such a love," she says.

"Be prepared," Pepel calls out to the volunteers. "I am bringing many people back to this store." And she has good reason: At least 13 of the destroyed homes on Staten Island belonged to her family, she says, and "at least six of them are my immediate family members."

Pepel's family members are still waiting for insurance to come in. But here in the toy shop, there's no bureaucracy, just human warmth and connection. There are even gift cards for older kids. See a stocking on the wall? It's yours if you want it.

As Bergin puts it, "we're giving away the whole store."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Staten Island was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, and many people there won't be able to spend the holidays in their homes. Volunteers on the island have put together a new effort for these families and children, in particular, uprooted by the storm. As NPR's Margot Adler reports, it's a toy store, but everything inside is free.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: There are shelves filled with toys - model cars, Monopoly, dolls, craft supplies, books, many things you would want in a toy store. Walesk Bhatti has three children.

WALESK BHATTI: I got the little horsie...

ADLER: Oh my heaven.

BHATTI: ...for the baby and I got some dolls for the seven-year-old.

ADLER: You get two toys for each child. But the rules aren't strict.

MADELINE BERGIN: Look around. Choose six items. If you can't decide, let us know. We are very lenient. When you get to this part of the room from this point over, there are all stocking stuffers, unlimited, help yourself.

ADLER: That's volunteer Madeline Bergin. She gives personal attention to everyone. She wants to know if you're back in your home or not. Grace Paterno says she lost all her Christmas decorations in the storm. She picked some toys, but what she really wants is a tree. Bergin figures it out, and Paterno is pretty close to tears.

GRACE PATERNO: A tree. Somebody donated a tree to us.

Oh, thank you. God bless.

ADLER: You said lost all your Christmas...

PATERNO: I did. They were in my shed, in the back. We lost my whole first floor of my home, so we're not in there yet. But I'm trying to be in there for Christmas morning so my kids can open their presents.

ADLER: When you enter the store, there's a system, but it takes less than a minute.

BERGIN: We take their name, their address, their FEMA number, the amount of children. So far, we've had 405 families, and we've given away over 2,200 toys since we started.

ADLER: Where To Turn, the organization behind this effort, began after the September 11th attacks. Its founder is Dennis McKeon.

DENNIS MCKEON: The Parish of St. Claire has lost 29 victims in the World Trade Center.

ADLER: So that's how they got started. Now, they take on all kinds of tragedies, but they still have roots in 9/11. Madeline Bergin lost her husband that day.

BERGIN: My husband was a firefighter, so now it's my turn to sit behind the desk and help people because people were so generous and kind to me.

ADLER: McKeon had the idea to collect toys for children affected by Sandy about six weeks ago.

MCKEON: And then I said, you know what, let's not have a party. Let's open a store so that we can give it to more people.

ADLER: He got the space from a union local. McKeon, who works for AT&T, is here on his lunch hour.

MCKEON: Everything you see in here is donated - the tables, the shelves, everything. We came in. We set it up as a toy store. The rest is history.

BERGIN: We've had donations from as far away as Massachusetts, Boston, upstate New York. I mean, random people off the street just walk in.

ADLER: With stuff?

BERGIN: With stuff.

ADLER: I spot Eileen Pepel. She's clutching a soft beige stuffed animal in her arms.

EILEEN PEPEL: I got a basketball. I got gift cards, and I got this stuffed puppy that's just such a love.

ADLER: She tells the volunteers, be prepared, I'm bringing many people back to this store.

PEPEL: My entire family is out of our homes right now, at least 13 of the destroyed homes belonged to my family, at least six of them are my immediately family members. So when I'm telling her I have people I'm sending back to her for this, we will appreciate it so much.

ADLER: They're still waiting for insurance. But here, there's no bureaucracy, just human warmth and connection. There are even gift cards for older kids. See a stocking on the wall? It's yours if you want it. As Bergin puts it:

BERGIN: We're giving away the whole store.

(LAUGHTER)

ADLER: And they are. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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