Help for the holidays: Burlington County Toys for Tots seeks donations to serve 22,000 children

Gina Capate is sort of like Santa Claus.

The Burlington County Toys for Tots coordinator gifted toys to 22,000 children last Christmas, helping to provide some extra holiday cheer to families that may otherwise have to do without.

While Capate has a good jumpstart to this year’s campaign, with about 5,000 toys carried over from 2019, there is still some concern if this year’s requests will be fulfilled, largely due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The organization’s 2020 fundraisers were canceled, there are far less toy collection boxes going out into the community due to businesses being closed or working remotely, and Capate is seeing an influx in applications over last year. 

“We’re trying to do the best we can,” Capate said. “We just need the donations.”

Founded in 1947, Toys for Tots is run by the United States Marine Corps Reserve, and gives toys to children whose parents would not be able to otherwise afford them. The Burlington County campaign has been in existence for at least 30 years, and Capate has been volunteering for 19 of those years. The former coordinator, Bill Wilson, recently stepped down, and Capate stepped up to fill the role. This is her second year as coordinator.

The Burlington County chapter is one of only four in the country that lets parents shop for their children. The toys will be organized by room according to age group. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, only four parents will be permitted to shop every half hour. Masks will be worn by everyone, and there will be hand sanitizing stations around the Mt. Laurel facility. Temperatures will also be taken at the door, and proof of residency is required.

“I’ve gone through two reams of paper full of requests since Oct. 1,” Capate explained.

For the first time, the chapter will cut off applications on Nov. 15 in order to ensure it can fulfill requests. Burlington County children ages newborn through 12 are eligible.

While Capate is usually putting 600 collection boxes out into the community, this year the number is closer to 100. To offset this change, she decided to start an Amazon wishlist, so those who want to give can do so from the comfort of their own home. Toys purchased through the wishlist will be sent directly to Burlington County Toys for Tots.

As far as donations, Capate needs everything, but she especially can use toys for ages newborn through age 2 for both boys and girls, and for girls ages 6 to 12.

Baby toys include rattles, soft sensory toys, play gyms, teethers, mirrors and musical toys. For the older girls, L.O.L. Surprise! toys are popular, along with Barbies and baby dolls in a variety of ethnicities. 

“We rely on donations. A lot of people are under the misconception that the foundation gives us monetary help,” Capate said, adding when she receives donated funds, she starts her shopping in clearance sections and cannot spend more than $30 on a toy.

The Burlington County Toys for Tots also has a special room called “Harper’s Corner,” named after the former coordinator’s granddaughter and catering toward children with special needs.

Distribution is Dec. 2 through 19, and Capate has a strong contingent of volunteers helping, including her mom and sister, Marine veterans and their wives, and others. The facility is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for shoppers.

Capate hopes each child receives three toys this year, which will include games, puzzles and books.

For those looking to donate, they can utilize one of the donation boxes in the county or can email Capate at mt.laurel.nj@toysfortots.org (subject line “donations”) before Dec. 2 to schedule a dropoff. From Dec. 2 to 19, donations can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Donation checks can be made out to Toys for Tots and mailed to: Toys for Tots c/o Gina Capate, PO Box 324, Maple Shade, NJ 08052.

For more information, visit mt-laurel-nj.toysfortots.org.