WALLINGFORD — Thousands of toys filled the windowfront of Gaetano’s Tavern on Main on Thursday night, as people flocked to the restaurant to support the annual Toys for Tots collection.
The event is organized annually by town residents Holly Lafond and James Fitzsimmons, in partnership with the U.S. Marine Corps’ Toys For Tots program.
The toy drive started in 1990, when Lafond and Fitzsimmons, who share a December birthday, decided to collect toys for the needy instead of throwing themselves a joint birthday party. In that first year, the pair of Sheehan High School graduates collected 20 toys. Last year, the toy count eclipsed 6,000, and once again, they topped the previous year’s mark by collecting 7,280 toys on Thursday night.
“It’s grown exponentially,” Lafond said, as residents piled in to the North Main Street
restaurant to donate footballs, action figures, board games and stuffed animals. “It’s turned into one of the most selfless things we could have ever done.”
The toy drive went public in 1997 and quickly gained momentum around town. This year, 36 local companies donated to the cause, and on top of a toy donation, Allnex of South Cherry Street donated $1,000 in gift cards for Lafond and Fitzsimmons to use to shop for more toys for kids in need.
“It’s our hometown, so we get a lot of support from businesses that want to help,” Fitzsimmons said. “People are always looking to help out this time of year.”
Among those looking to help were volunteers from the local high schools, who participate in a yearly competition to see which school can donate the most toys to the cause. Sheehan High School won with over 1,200 toys. Sheehan, Lyman Hall and Choate Rosemary Hall students volunteered their time at Gaetano’s to help with the influx of donations.
“It feels good to help others who are less fortunate,” said Makayla Cao of Lyman Hall. “We want them to know there are people out there who know what they’re going through and want to help.”
One pair of volunteers chipped in to donate a new 10-speed bicycle, which stuck out among the enormous pile of unopened toys that filled a corner of the restaurant.
“We heard there was a need for gifts for older kids, so we got together to get something nicer for that group.” said Jim Elia, who donated the bike with his neighbor Pat Dellaripa.
As part of the tradition, Lafond announces the total number of toys collected at the end of the night before they’re loaded onto a U-Haul truck waiting outside. The announcement always make the two friends emotional.
“Every year (Lafond) cries when she makes the announcement,” Fitzsimmons laughed. “But that’s because it means so much to us. We never want a kid to wake up on Christmas morning without a present.”