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Not Just Another Toy Story by Donny Levit

Karen Weiland is seated at a spotless conference table. On the wall behind her, geometric shapes bursting with color form a series of neatly-framed collages. The atmosphere feels creative, tranquil and minimalist. Weiland’s calm and gracious personality sets the tone for a room that has been assisting local families for more than two decades.

Karen Weiland has run the Parenting Center toy drive for 20 years.

Welcome to the Parenting Center of the South Orange and Maplewood School District.

Founded by Weiland, the center provides an amalgam of resources to assist elementary school families throughout the district. “This is the table we always meet around,” Weiland says. “I have a wonderful group of volunteers. We meet once a month and dream and imagine together all the different ways we can support families and kids.”

The center hosts speakers, provides support groups and customizes its programs to target the specific needs of parents and students alike. “We give people information, knowledge and access to the best thinking and writing about parenting and family issues,” Weiland says. Marilu Gregory, the center’s co-chair, works in collaboration with Weiland throughout the year.

While the Parenting Center may be hushed on this mid-October morning, the energy will soon shift into the toy drive’s flurry of preparation, organization and community collaboration. In mid-December, the Parenting Center will begin delivering gifts to South Orange and Maplewood households in need. Weiland estimates that the drive now assists 165 elementary school families per year. “Our idea is that on Christmas morning or on Hanukkah, or whatever other celebration, your kids are going to be happy,” she says.

To accomplish this takes an outpouring of donations and volunteerism from almost every corner of the school district and community. South Orange resident Lorraine Gibbons, now in her third year as chairperson of the toy drive, began as a volunteer with the Parenting Center years ago.

“For me, it’s an absolute gift to be able to participate,” says Gibbons. “We’ve had the groundwork for years and it’s a great team. The principals, the social workers, and the interns are amazing. Every year I get calls from community centers and businesses. They all want to be part of it.” Gibbons, who moved here in 1983, spearheaded Strawberry Fields, an outdoor learning lab at Seth Boyden Demonstration School. “I raised four of my own children and three step-children here, so I’ve been involved in the schools since 1991,” she tells us.

The inspiration for the toy drive took place more than 20 years ago. Soon after joining the school district as a social worker, Weiland observed a deep need for dedicated social workers to be onsite at each of the elementary schools in the district. So she wrote a proposal to establish an internship program that enabled graduate students in social work to perform their fieldwork in all the district’s elementary schools. Ralph Lieber, who was the superintendent at the time, accepted the proposal and established Weiland as the supervisor of the Elementary School Social Work Internship Program.

During the first year of the program, an intern told Weiland that she and her husband had decided not to give each other gifts that year. “Instead, they were going to spend their money on giving gifts to the kids on her caseload who really were in need,” says Weiland. “I told her that there’s no way on earth that I’d let her do that. And we decided to have a full-fledged holiday toy drive.”

Gibbons lauds the high school student volunteers who are instrumental in selecting, preparing and executing the gift lists for the elementary school students. “Not only do they do the shopping, collecting, and managing the donation boxes, we have them doing focus groups,” she says. Both Gibbons and Weiland point out that the high school volunteers are able to find out what holiday gifts will be the most exciting for the young recipients. “The high school kids are much cooler than we are,” Weiland confesses.

Leading up to the toy drive, volunteers place donation boxes in businesses, schools, and houses of worship throughout South Orange and Maplewood. “You can also donate online at a GoFundMe page or our Amazon wish list,” says Weiland. “We have pre-schools who use it as part of their tradition of teaching preschoolers how to give. We know that teaching our kids to give is as important as being able to give to those in need.

Gibbons credits local businesses that play a vital role in the collection process. “Floor space of a retail shop is valuable space,” she says. “This is the time when you’re making a lot of your sales. The fact that these local stores are willing to take up some of their space to allow us to’s very generous of them. We want to promote and support those businesses.”

After the volunteers finish their massive shopping spree of toy purchases, the Parenting Center becomes a well-oiled gift assembly machine. “The room is filled to your head,” Weiland says. “But it’s very organized. We really arrange it like it’s a boutique.”

The delivery takes place when the kids aren’t home. “We give wrapping paper to the parents and they will do the wrapping themselves,” explains Weiland. “These gifts are meant to come from the parents. And kids know if their parents wrapped something or not.”

But no less important, she adds, is the center’s pedagogy; teaching volunteerism is part of the experience. “There’s such a deep lesson here,” Weiland explains. “What is the definition of a community? How do you give in a way that’s respectful and loving and how to do you make sure nobody is left behind and everybody feels like they belong?”

Adds Gibbons, “There are people that were involved in the drive as children and there are people that were recipients who now want to participate. My own children, who are now in their 30s, participated when they were youngsters – and they still come back and ask about what’s happening. They’ve set up their own drives and collect things at their places of work.”

“It’s a magical, magical time. When I go out to deliver the gifts, I’ve gotten picked up, hugged and twirled around,” Weiland says. “We don’t want any families to feel on the outside watching everybody else having these idyllic beautiful times. We want to make sure that every family feels like they’re participating in the family rituals of childhood.”

Donny Levit is a writer, journalist and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. Follow him on @donnyreports.

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