Cass County Toys for Tots delivers joy, toys to families

CASS COUNTY — The 2020 Toys for Tots program looks a little different this year, but the joy the program brings to children across the county remains the same.

Cars pulled into the parking lot of Pleasant View Church of Christ, 60550 Crooked Creek Rd., Cassopolis, Saturday as the program distributed bags of toys for families aiming to give their children a special Christmas.

“We’re doing good this year,” said program coordinator Ken Lebeda. “A lot better than what we expected.”

This year is Lebeda’s 31st and final as a program coordinator. April Fester, who has been a coordinator for 11 years, is also stepping down following the conclusion of the event. The two were presented with plaques from the volunteer staff honoring them for their years of service.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say we have the easiest part,” Fester said. “Most of these volunteers have been with me for 11 years-plus. When I come in, things are done. Everyone knows what to do, they’re just wonderful.”

According to Fester, the program raised more than $8,000 for toys this year and provided toys for more than 500 kids.

“It balances out,” Lebeda said. “People couldn’t buy toys this year but they were able to donate money that we use to buy toys for kids.”

During the month of November, families signed up to participate in the program at local libraries, filling out a questionnaire about the types of toys they were looking for. Unlike last year’s distribution event, the program set up a drive-through pick-up station in the church parking lot where families could pick up pre-bagged toys. A raffle was set up for toys $30 and up, which included several bicycles.

This is the fifth year the distribution event has been held at the church, according to Pleasant View pastor Jeff Oliver.

“They needed space and we had space that was open and available,” Oliver said. “This team has really gone above and beyond this year. The community is blessed to have them here working and we’re glad to be able to house them.”

The program is supported by several local businesses, organizations and public entities, including Meijer, True’s Towing, Lyons Industries, Edwardsburg Fire Department and the Dowagiac Fire Department.

Dowagiac Fire Department lieutenant Anthony Stewart said the department received more toy donations this year than ever before. 

“Social media has been huge for us this year,” Stewart said. “Strong word of mouth from all of our department members and the community support this year played a huge role. I think this is the best year that we’ve had.” 

Stewart reiterated the impact the community played in the success of the toy drive, including a $1,000 donation from Honor Credit Union.

“We could not have done this without the amazing support we’ve received from the community,” he said. “Marty and Guy Piper actually donated three three totes of toys and then wrote us a $1,000 donation. Those donations were absolutely huge. We haven’t seen donations of that size since we started doing this.”

Lebeda and Fester’s daughter, Danielle Phillips, will take over as coordinator next year. Phillips has years of experience helping her parents with the program and aims to expand it.

“We’re planning on doing more fundraisers,” Phillips said. “Anything to put us on the map more and get us more support from the community. We’ll have a planning meeting in January to try to come up with more things.”

“She has helped us for years,” Fester said. “We’re not worried. It will run just as smooth, if not better, with her taking care of it.”

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