LAKEVILLE — Once again, a steady stream of children filed past toy-covered tables during the Lakeville Lions-LaPaz Lions Toys for Tots distribution day.
Unlike the last several years, though, those youngsters, their parents, and volunteers from both Lions Clubs enjoyed plenty of room to maneuver, thanks to a new location – Newton Center in Lakeville.
After eight years at the Union-North Ambulance Service building the ever-expanding campaign charged into its new home Saturday to rave reviews.
“Phenomenal,” Lakeville Lion Vic Fischer, assistant project chairman, said. “Newton Center has been extremely generous. It’s much more efficient this year; the flow is fantastic. How beautiful. How spacious. This is a true asset; definitely our best one yet.”
And the distribution day, which includes food boxes for families with and without children, certainly needed the extra space. When the Lakeville Lions first partnered with the Marine Corps Reserves in 2003, the drive brought in 65 toys. That number continued to grow each year and, aided by the addition of the LaPaz club two years ago, spiked to more than 1,200 toys last year.
“We’re the conduit that energizes the community,” Lakeville Lion and project chairman Dave Court said. “Once the community finds out it stays in the community they support it. It’s like the line from (“Field of Dreams”) – ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Well, we built it, they came.”
With that in mind, Newton Center’s Christina Milliken said the Lions approached her last year about using the facility, which frequently hosts community events, for their project. Milliken said she gladly agreed and even encouraged guests to bring toys and food to donate when Santa Claus visited Newton Center earlier this month.
Milliken also said she wanted to create a suitable ambience that wound up featuring soft lighting with a Christmas-themed backdrop on the center’s stage, inviting decorations, and subtle strains of Christmas music in the background.
“This is awesome,” Milliken said as children perused the assortment of toys assembled on a long row of tables. “I’m excited because we want this to be a place for the families to go to. It feels like your home. It brings the community closer together. It means a lot to the Newtons because they want the community to work together.”
Working together, Fischer said the drive amassed between 1,200 and 1,300 toys, a total buoyed by increased numbers from LaPaz. According to LaPaz Lion Al Burch, who coordinated that club’s effort, LaPaz doubled its contributions from last year.
“We’re anticipating doubling that number again next year,” Burch said. “The LaPaz community really did well. We’re thankful for the generosity, cooperation and support from the LaPaz community. Our club is enthused.
“This new set-up is just great,” he added. “We appreciate Newton Center. It’s exciting for LaPaz to join in with the excellent leadership of the Lakeville chapter.”
Court said the Lions served 65 families and approximately 175 children, ranging in age from toddlers to 18 years old. A donation of 25 bicycles and tricycles – distributed by lottery – highlighted the available toys.
In addition to toys, families received a ham, oranges, 10 pounds of potatoes, and a food box – covered by unsolicited monetary donations -- and Newton Center boasted visits from 1st Sgt. Finney of the Marine Corps Reserves, Santa Claus, Rep. Joe Donnelly, and State Rep. Timothy Wesco.
Meanwhile, Milliken said she hopes Newton Center becomes the annual function’s permanent home.
“We want them to come back,” she said. “Giving is the biggest part of our lives, I feel. When I watch the kids get their toys it makes me just want to cry.”
And while the event’s surroundings changed, the abundance of toys and food, and the wide-eyed excitement of youngsters carefully selecting their new toys remained.
“The generosity of our community continues to grow, but by the same token our being here illustrates the need in these economic times to continue to grow,” Fischer said. “The community continues to reach out, and the Lions, in conjunction with the Marine Corps, have met challenges to serve those in need.”
“It’s so touching to see, not only the children, but the parents with tears in their eyes as they say, ‘thank you,’” he added. “It stays with you all year, and really for a lifetime; it stays with you forever. It’s the greatest reward.”