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'We're trying to fill in those gaps': Local nonprofits aim to see to it every local child gets a Christmas


There are just a few days left to help make sure all children in Howell County’s rural areas and cities have an opportunity to receive something special for Christmas.

With no local program coordinator this year to organize a formal Toys for Tots community toy drive — an endeavor that takes extensive training and a commitment to thorough documentation and consistent outreach — several area nonprofits have stepped up to make sure no child in the Howell County area goes without a gift this Christmas. The drive ends Monday, and there are still needs to be met, says Shannon VonAllmen, director of Birthday Blessings.

Birthday Blessings is one of the organizations behind this year’s toy drive, along with Always a Future for Kids, the Mtn. View Community Betterment Program, The Chaos Closet and 37th Judicial Court Appointed Special Advocates.

VonAllmen had the idea when she found out in early November that the Marine Corps League Detachment 1184 of West Plains had not been able to fill the role of toy drive coordinator, a position held for several years by the late Jack McNevin, who stepped down in 2017 as it became more difficult for him to keep up with the demands of the job, which he loved, recalled daughter Sally Watkins.

She shared her memories of McNevin sorting and surveying the collected toys at the Howell County Fairgrounds, surrounded by volunteers — many of whom were family, and of McNevin’s cheerful and chatty outreach efforts to promote the program.

“Daddy loved to talk,” said Watkins. “He loved to tell the radio station, or go down to the Quill, to tell about Toys for Tots.” McNevin also loved to personally collect the donations whenever possible, she recalled.

But it wasn’t all fun and socializing. Watkins remembered her father having to travel to Washington, D.C., for thorough training, learning how to document exactly which kinds of toys were donated, and how they were dispersed. That record-keeping, she said, was critical for the program.

According to the official Toys for Tots website, toysfortots.org, the volunteer position requires a potential coordinator first fill out an application, then complete a credit and criminal background check, and then participate in a webinar session. Only after those steps can a person be approved to travel alone to Leesburg, Va., in the outer limits of the D.C. metro area, for mandatory training conducted over the course of two days in September. Prospective coordinators must be a member of the Marine Corps League, though anyone can volunteer to help collect and sort toys.

After McNevin stepped down, the local program was coordinated by Ben Grace for a time before he moved out of the area.

No one has filled the role since local Marine Corps League Commandant Kevin Conboy moved to West Plains from Florida two years ago, he said. Conboy said steps were being taken to put a new Toys for Tots coordinator in place this year, but by the time the organization found a willing person, the deadline had passed. The application period is open from Jan. 16 through June 30, 2024, per the national organization.

“I hate to see the program go,” said Conboy, noting that at least one person has expressed interest in filing the application to lead the local Toys for Tots drive in the upcoming cycle. “I am very optimistic that the program will continue, and optimistic and hopeful that next year, we’ll see the program again as it has been in previous years.”

Meanwhile, toys collected this year through the annual Toys for Tots Christmas Concert hosted by The Bridge Church this to Ozark Action, which administers the Greater West Plains Area Chamber of Commerce Christmas Program, said VonAllmen. Children benefiting from that program, per application guidelines, must reside in the West Plains R-7 School District.

VonAllmen pointed out that makes a very big difference for the area’s children — and there are children outside of the school district who also need help. With Toys for Tots inactive, she noticed last year, those children had no one to serve them. To avoid that happening again, she teamed up this year with members of the partnering organizations in a last-ditch effort to help.

“We’re trying to fill in those gaps,” she said.

The drive ends Monday, and with coordination from Mtn. View Community Betterment in Mtn. View, and school counselors in rural schools, all toys will be distributed Tuesday.

If anything is left over, she said, it, too, will be given to Ozark Action. The goal, Vonallmen said, is to provide Christmas for about 200 children.

Drop-off locations collecting toys in West Plains are Lybyer and Hass-Darr Halls on the Missouri State University-West Plains campus, West Plains Bank and Trust Company on Court Square, 37th Judicial CASA on Washington Avenue, Southern Missouri Community Health Clinic on Independence Drive, West Plains Public Library on Broadway, Ozarks Healthcare pharmacy locations, Ozarks Small Business Incubator on Washington Avenue, Ozark Marketing on East U.S. 160, First United Methodist Church on West Main Street and Community First Banking Company in Southern Hills Plaza. In Mtn. View, locations are Missouri Home Realty on East Fifth Street and Dollar General on U.S. 60. Great Rivers Distributing in Pomona is also a drop-off site.

Another option for those who prefer to shop online is to shop from the Howell County Christmas Toy Drive Amazon Wishlist at www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/PQ34GSAJJ31D.

For updates and more information, follow @howellcountytoydrive on Facebook.