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Marines, strangers work to rescue children’s Christmas |

Marines, strangers work to rescue children’s Christmas

| Wednesday, December 24, 2008 12:00 a.m

Santa Claus is coming to Penn Hills after all.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers and Marines who came to the rescue, a room that was nearly empty Tuesday morning was crammed full of donated Christmas gifts hours later. The toys will be distributed to 250 needy children who otherwise would have few or no gifts at all.

“I am overwhelmed,” Joyce Davis, executive director of the Lincoln Park Community Center, said as volunteers unloaded box after box of donated toys. “It speaks to how good people are. This is truly a blessing.”

By afternoon, the center was teeming with Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, remote control cars, jump ropes, board games, educational books and other gifts.

As families filed into the makeshift toy store, 1-year-old Da’naisha Ferguson teetered unsteadily amid the mounds of unexpected gifts.

She paused to hug a glittery teddy bear, and then dropped to the floor to examine a Dora the Explorer book.

Her mother, Catrice Cosby, 21, of Wilkinsburg watched with a smile.

“This is so helpful,” she said. “We would have come up with something to get for her, but this is big for people who are struggling.”

The mood was decidedly gloomier a day earlier.

Toys that Davis expected to be sent to the center didn’t arrive. Lincoln Park Community Center and the Pancakes and Jesus Ministry in Penn Hills requested the toys through the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program, but paperwork intended for the Pittsburgh Toys for Tots office inadvertently went to Philadelphia.

After reading a report about the mix-up in the Tribune-Review and its family of newspapers, including the Valley News Dispatch, people from throughout the region bought gifts and brought them to the community center.

“It’s Christmastime,” explained Ryan Shedlock, 22, of Forest Hills after dropping off two large bags of basketballs and footballs. “Kids need gifts at Christmas. I just hope they get all they need.”

The greatest windfall came from Beaver County.

Phil Stebler, 80, a chaplain with the Ohio Valley Marine Corps League, realized he had access to more than 1,000 toys for children of all ages in a building in Baden. The Marines ended their Toys for Tots drive on Saturday and had planned to save the extra toys for next year, he said.

He called Davis.

Around the same time, Ryan Mergl, 29, of Pine read the story. A lawyer and volunteer firefighter in Peebles, he, too, called Davis and offered his services.

Mergl and Stebler met in Baden, where Ohio Valley Marine Corps Toys for Tots volunteers loaded as many toys as they could into a Peebles firetruck, and then delivered them to the community center. They made a second trip with a donated U-Haul in the afternoon.

“I didn’t come from the wealthiest of families, but I always woke up Christmas morning with presents,” Mergl said. “I read the story and thought, ‘How would I feel if I was one of those 250 kids?’ It’s Christmastime, man!”

Retired Marine Marilou Farole helped to box up dolls and jigsaw puzzles. “If you want something done, ask a Marine. We saw a need, and we addressed it.”

Many others did the same.

Volunteers at Pittsburgh Cares collected more than 100 toys and $200 in cash for the center. The nonprofit Police Helping People Daily, of the Penn Hills Police Department, wrote a check for $350 and gave it to Davis.

All the while, impromptu Santa’s helpers filtered in and out of the community center, lugging bags of gifts.

“People I don’t even know, everyone, are all bringing in more gifts,” Davis said. “They started calling in the morning, and they haven’t stopped. My voicemail is literally jammed.”

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