Annual toy drive up and running
The Mon Valley Leathernecks are a group of former Marines, many of them battle-hardened from the treachery of Vietnam and other wars.
But Wally Fronzaglio has watched many a fellow Leatherneck beam at the sight of a needy child hoisting a brand new toy they otherwise would not have received for Christmas.
“Let me tell you all these are hard-nosed guys, but when it comes down to taking care of the kids, they're just as soft and gentle as everyone else,” he said. “I'm talking about some tough, tough guys that have been through hell. But when it comes to the kids, they're smiling, grinning and running around passing out the stuff.”
Thanksgiving kicks off the Leathernecks' annual Toys for Tots collection drive. Folks can donate by purchasing a new toy and dropping it at any of the umpteen collection boxes located around most Mid-Mon Valley municipalities – from West Newton to Smithton to Charleroi to Elizabeth. The Leathernecks will also accept monetary donations that go directly toward the purchase of additional toys.
“We converge on all towns,” Fronzaglio said with a laugh. “Every morning, I go and put out more boxes. Right about now, you have a lot of businesses calling … doctors, chiropractors, beauty shops. They call and I go running.”
“They call me, ‘Wally the Begger',” he added. “They say, ‘Here comes Wally, it must be that time of year.'”
Fronzaglio and his brethren collect the toys and store them in a large truck or at a building owned by the Donora Volunteer Fire Department. The toys will be distributed to needy children Dec. 21 at the Donora Fire Hall.
“When it comes to expenses, all my guys provide their own vans and trucks, pay their own gas, so any cash donations go to the toys,” he said. “At the end of the year, I say, ‘You guys are out of work'.”
The local Toys for Tots program began in 1986, the same year the Mon Valley Leathernecks was founded. This will be Year No. 26.
“Believe me, I've got it down to a science,” Fronzaglio said.
Parents or guardians of disadvantaged kids can apply at several locations, including Department of Public Welfare offices, the NAACP office on Sixth Street in Monessen, Bill's Golfland on Route 51 in Rostraver and the Herman Bigi Law Office in Charleroi. Most of the children come from families on public assistance, Fronzaglio said.
“More and more people get on board every year, but it seems like every year, more and more people are in need,” Fronzaglio said. “It gets to the point where you have more and more people coming to you for help, so we have to go out there and dig harder for more toys.”
“With the economy like it is, (cash) donations have gone down the past few years,” he added. “The Salvation Army is working hard as well and we wish that they are successful as well.”
The Leathernecks enlist the help of firefighters to help stock the toys. A group of students from Belle Vernon Area and Ringgold - including football players and members of the Interact Club - carry in and set up the toys for the big day. Tables are stacked with toys according to age and gender and price tags are removed to prevent any returns. Fronzaglio said a fair estimate is more than 10,000 toys.
“The fire hall looks like a giant Toy Land, it's really something to see,” he said. “One of the biggest things I've learned over the years is to have patience with this. You're always thinking you won't have enough, but it always seems to work out. People are more generous than you would initially think. I see people who are struggling that want to donate and that's what makes this program great.”
When it comes time for the kids to claim their bounty, Fronzaglio and crew keep the entrance blocked off so parents cannot run interference. This day is always solely about the kids.
“I have a conglomerate of guys in law enforcement controlling the doors. We have it blocked off,” said Fronzaglio, a constable for Washington County. “Two students take one child and they get their pick, so the parents can't scream and holler, ‘Get this, get that!' We even have a table if they need batteries. I've never seen any kid walk out with less than seven or eight toys.”
Fronzaglio noted two of his group's senior members - Joe Frantz of Charleroi and Mike Yusko of Monessen - who both fought at Iwo Jima. Both are in their late 80s, Fronzaglio said, but both enjoy the benefits of their labor.
“They might be struggling a little bit, but they're out there trying to pick up toys and help out,” Fronzaglio said. “I don't care how tough you are. Seeing that does something to your heart.”
Anyone interested in either donating or applying for the Toys for Tots program can contact Fronzaglio at 724-379-8888. Checks made payable to Toys for Tots can also be sent to 204 Brokaw Avenue, Donora, PA. 15033.
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.