WALLINGFORD — It's been 29 years since town residents Holly Lafond and James Fitzsimmons first gathered in an apartment building and decided they wouldn't be opening presents on their shared birthday.
Instead they would collect toys for children in need, to benefit the U.S. Marine Corps' annual Toys For Tots donation drive. That first year, 1990, they collected around 20 toys. On Thursday night, during what has become an annual event at Gaetano's Tavern on Main Street, they collected 8,187 new unwrapped toys — including Lego sets, Frozen dolls, board games, stuffed animals, basketballs, and much more. It was their largest collection yet.
“It's grown into a life of its own,” Fitzsimmons said, noting the event has also become as much a town gathering. “We try to provide the opportunity for everyone to get together.
“Every year it just grows, and more and more people participate,” he added.
“I think when we started in 1990 we had no idea how big this would be. So we're very excited,” Lafond said. “But the only way this could ever happen is because we have a lot of support from our community, our families and our friends. And without those three entities we would never be able to be so successful. We're very lucky.”
The pair estimated that over the years more than 70,000 toys have been donated.
Debbie Pacileo, co-owner of Gaetano's, described the evening as a “great event.”
“I can't believe it. Every year they bring more and more toys,” Pacileo said.
Town Councilman Vincent Testa played guitar and sang a set that included holiday classics.
Testa attends every year.
“The fact is they [Lafond and Fitzsimmons] have been doing it before it was a thing to do,” Testa said.
Local Marines, in their dress blue uniforms, were on hand to receive the toys – taking them to a local warehouse where the donations would be processed.
“It's truly tremendous what they do. It's a wonderful event. There's great support from people, not only from Wallingford, but surrounding towns,” said Tim Wall, of Wallingford, after handing off a donation to Marines.