Story by Kristina Hoti
Operation Toy Train pulled into Warwick alongside Kuiken Brothers on Sun., Dec. 2, amid an expectant crowd of local families who arrived bearing unwrapped toys destined for the USMC Toys for Tots Foundation. The Warwick Fire Department (WFD) collected toys from the community in each of their fire houses and in the police department over the course of two weeks, with the collection starting on the evening of the Warwick Tree Lighting.
Mike Contaxis, 2nd Assistant Chief of the WFD said, “We, at the Warwick Fire Department, feel it is necessary to give back to the community and to those less fortunate than others…especially during the holidays. It was an honor and a privilege to assist our Marines with the toy drive.”
Operation Toy Train is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization operating since 2009, when it was begun by John Sobotka, an engineer for Norfolk Southern. At that time, his daughter had the idea that the train he operated could be utilized to make an even bigger collection of toys within a short period of time. Sobotka took the idea and ran with it. In its first year, Operation Toy Train collected just over 3,000 toys and has grown to such an extent that the 2017 tally reached over 27,000 in just four days, with over 17,700 being collected in one day.
On the previous day, the train ran from points in New Jersey, starting in River Edge and ending in Sparta, and had collected 14,000 toys. On the day of Warwick’s pick up, the crew met in Warwick at 7 a.m., making its way to Walden, NY for the first day’s stop at 10:15 a.m., then stopping in Montgomery, Campbell Hall, Sugar Loaf, and finally in Warwick.
In anticipation of the train’s arrival, Kuiken Brothers provided a small tent with Dunkin Donuts hot chocolate and cookies for the children. Free key chains and bracelets were also available. Although the day was overcast, rain held off as a crowd of about 70 people gathered, many bringing toys to add to the large white boxes, marked with the Toys for Tots logo.
With a great show for the kids, the WFD did not disappoint as four fire trucks came through Town and pulled into the Kuiken Brothers parking lot. A truck was used to close South St. to traffic and collected toys were unloaded from others. The train soon arrived, consisting of five cars and three engines, and already loaded with over 3,000 donated toys from its previous pick-up points. To the excitement of the kids, it also heralded the arrival of Santa. As the door of one train car opened to reveal a counter-top and chair, used by the crew to collect, sort, and count the thousands of toys that would be collected, a little girl asked with wonder, “Is this Santa’s office?”
Operation Toy Train operators and ground crew volunteers went quickly to work, loading the boxes of toys onto the train, where they would be counted and placed back into boxes. The collection from each of the WFD companies and the Warwick Police Department filled three of the large Toys for Tots boxes; two additional boxes were filled with toys arriving directly to the event. The ground crew then placed a bridge connecting the rail car with a large UPS box truck where all of the toys from the day’s collection were unloaded.
While all of this work was being done, children enjoyed a meet and greet with Santa in the tent. The man in red was joined by one of his elves and by Sgts. Rios and DeFino, of Stewart Air National Guard Base. After a photo-op with Santa and his escorts, children and their families were permitted to board the front engine of the train for a tour, adding one final attraction to this charitable giving event.
Operation Toy Train is always looking for ground crew volunteers, and monetary donations help to offset the costs of running the train each year. Donations can be made online using the link via the group’s website at www.OperationToyTrain.org or checks can be mailed to Operation Toy Train, Inc., P.O. Box 2351, Branchville, NJ 07862.