By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
The Atlantic County Toys for Kids program held a toy collection Saturday at Ventnor Plaza shopping center. Anyone who brought a toy was rewarded with a $10 gift card to Acme Market. The kind folks at Ventnor Plaza provided the funding not only to cover the gift cards, but also provide a few extra toys, which are sadly needed more than ever this year.
There was a sporadic line of cars that pulled up to drop off toys, and many of those who brought them declined taking a gift card.
“Several people have refused to take a gift card and instead said to pass it on to someone who needs it more. One group who received three gift cards took them into the Acme Market and bought more toys to donate,” Toys for Kids program board member Wally Korzeniewski said.
The program, which was started 36 years ago by Ret. Sgt. Greg DePiano, a former Atlantic County Corrections officer, was held in honor of “Trooper,” DePiano’s 18-year-old service dog and program mascot who died of cancer just weeks ago.
Trooper was trained to sniff out cell phones smuggled into the county jail, and after DePiano was injured on the job, served as his service dog. Trooper’s photo is included as part of the Toys for Kids logo and he attended all the events held over the last decade or so.
The Toys for Kids program collects toys to distribute for Christmas and around the year when the need for toys arises, Korzeniewski said.
A load of games, crafts supplies, coloring books and crayons were recently delivered to children at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point.
Atlantic City Police Lt. Will Santiago said his unit recently delivered toys to a family with seven children whose Christmas presents were stolen from their vehicle, and 547 toys were distributed to children at the city’s Winter Wonderland event.
“This has been a difficult year for our collections, but we still try to do whatever we can to help,” DiPiano said. “Although many community events were cancelled, various police departments collected toys for us, but the need is greater than ever this year.”
Santiago said he supervises three community policing programs in Atlantic City, including the Neighborhood Coordination Unit, and officers conducted several Shop with a Cop events for more than 160 children.
“We assist in dropping off toys whenever we are called to help, including during tragedies such as fires,” he said.
Santa Claus and officers from the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office, along with officers from Atlantic City, Longport, Hammonton, Linwood, Pleasantville, and the Department of Corrections participated in the event, which was sponsored by Ventnor Plaza.
Organizers are hoping to have enough toys to fill wishes from good little boys and girls in Atlantic County, but it is questionable if there will be any left for the Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, which is popular with the Latino community.
Korzeniewski said anyone who would like to donate toys can call to have them dropped off or picked up by a member of the Toys for Kids team. The organization is also collecting monetary donations, which will go a long way in purchasing more toys.
For more information or to make a donation, see ToysForKidsProgram.org, or call DePiano at 609-226-1560, or Michelle Riordan at 609-335-4114.