On Monday, six middle-school students in Salem, Mass., went on a $2,500 "shopping spree" for safe toys – no lead paint, no toxic magnets. The toys were destined for Toys for Tots, courtesy of SourceOne Inc., an energy-management firm in Boston.
This past Thursday, Cincinnati Toys for Tots received 8,000 plush toys (no hard plastic and no intoxicating residues) from Ty's Toy Box, an online retailer in northern Kentucky.
In Chicago, Children's Memorial Hospital is getting 50 CDs and 50 comic books from Denise Dorman, a publicist and mother of a 3-year-old, who worries about spreading lead paint.
This has not been the merriest of holidays for local toy drives. High-profile toy recalls and continuing concerns about the safety of products imported from China have caused donors to pull back on contributions and charities to begin screening donations. But in some places, holiday givers are coming up with creative alternatives – from 24-hour Internet money drives to "make-it-yourself" toys – to help children in need.
"Our aisles are bursting this this year with customers who want to help kids make toys of their own," says Lori Gatley, of Michaels Craft Store in Pasadena Calif. She says parents are stocking up on paper, glue, and cardboard components rather than worry about safety with some manufactured toy they've purchased. "Most of the projects are made of materials like foam which are safe," she says.
Purchases of apparel, DVDs, and party supplies at the Ty's Toy Box website have also soared this year over hard plastic toys for that reason, says CEO Ty Simpson.
Toys for Tots is screening individual toys that are donated this season, but coordinator Sgt. José Torres says that the real issue is getting people to donate at all. Toy totals are 30,000 this year compared with last year's 140,000 at the local headquarters here in Los Angeles, Sergeant Torres says.
"We are getting so many e-mails and calls from families who are concerned about not having toys to give to their kids," Torres says. "We barely have enough toys to cover any of the lists from the various organizations that we work with like local schools and churches."
Salvation Army Centre City Corps Community Center in San Diego, asks for close to 7,000 toys each holiday season. Only 200 toys have been collected this year, Suzi Woodruff Lacey, director of communications for the company, says.
"Many Salvation Army stores are not even accepting toys because it is too hard to tell if they are dangerous or not," she says.
The Salvation Army and Goodwill are taking extra precautions this year with incoming donations providing a current list of recalled toys on sites like the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"We are always responding to toys on the recall list, but instead of trying to figure out if a toy is dangerous or not, we have simply limited what kind of toys we get," says Pete Duda, Goodwill director of stores for southern California. "It's restricted to dolls, boxed games, and stuffed animals. I tell my employees that if they get something that is not one of those things to discard it."
Organizations like SourceOne Inc. are picking up on that. "We knew that charities were not pulling in the usual number of donated toys because of safety fears," says Mr. Simpson. "We wanted to give something to kids [that] we knew would be safe."
In Pasadena, a local promotion company and a few bands organized a benefit concert in an effort to buck that trend and to encourage people to give toys. In Illinois, a nonprofit charity, Dreams for Kids, will host Holiday for Hope, an event that draws over 1,200 homeless and unprivileged children for a day of crafts, games, and face painting. And nationwide, people are asked to hand over unwanted second-hand toys to Got Junk, a personal trash collecting service that recently donated hundreds of used toys to families in need in Atlanta.
"When we saw there was such a major shortfall [in toys] we thought we would do something more creative," says Tom Galvin chief development officer for SourceOne Inc. Instead of simply giving checks directly to the US Marines, which administer the Boston-region Toys for Tots, the company decided that six middle school students could do the shopping at a local store. Target benefited from promotion of its toy section, while the Marine color guard promoted the message that safe toy donations are sorely needed.
The Boston-region Toys for Tots, which usually gives away 200,000 toys annually, recently reported that this year they are 30,000 toys short.
"We wanted to garner a bit of visibility for the safety issue and at the same time reinforce for the community at large that Toys for Tots is important to the kids who ultimately benefit from them as Christmas gifts," Mr. Galvin says.
MetroMinistries, a New York-based charity for inner-city kids, says alternative giving is not unique to the US. It is earmarking thousands of dollars from donations to buy socks and shoes for Romanian children as well as Christmas dinners for youth in the Philippines.
"This is an unusual year in that the number of toys being donated is down from previous years," says spokesman Scott Spiewak. "So the ministry is responding with new ways of thinking about how it can meet its vision of helping kids at Christmas."