Tri-City Life Center creates gift wonderland for struggling families

| Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Alissa Johns can't find the perfect stuffed animal for one of her daughters as she searches through a crib full of the plush toys at Toyland inside the Tri-City Life Center in Lower Burrell.

That's when Marion Boggs, the coordinator of Toyland, comes to her rescue.

“Here's one,” says Boggs, holding up a grinning stuffed monkey.

“Oh, that's perfect,” Johns says. “My daughter loves stuffed animals; I had to make sure I got her one she doesn't have.”

Johns is one of hundreds of economically struggling clients the center helps so their children can have something to open Christmas morning.

“I'm so grateful (for the center),” says Johns, who has three daughters ages 10, 8 and 2. “I don't have the money to do all this Christmas stuff.

“I love it here; they really help,” she adds. “If they weren't here, I don't know what I would do.”

Boggs says the center, which helps people become better parents by providing classes and supplies — such as car seats, cribs, mattresses, formula, diapers, jars of baby food and clothing — starts collecting toys the day after Christmas to prepare for the next season.

“We have probably tens of thousands of toys,” says Nancy Giuliotti, the center's development coordinator. “Whatever we don't give out to our clients, we give to other nonprofits.

“Then we start again from scratch.”

According to Giuliotti, when toys are collected, if they're used, they're sterilized and made to look as much like-new as possible.

The center normally requires that clients earn “points” to purchase items from them. Points are earned by attending classes.

Giuliotti says Toyland — which operates during the first three weeks of December — is totally free to the center's regular customers; they don't need to use their points.

On the first day of Toyland alone, 700 toys were given out for 108 children in 60 families.

Bertrand Caruthers of Vandergrift calls the people who work and volunteer at the center “saints.”

“This is my tabernacle,” says Caruthers, who was there choosing toys for his two sons, who are 5 and 2. “This means the world to me.”

Caruthers had a box full of toys, but the big prize: two Spider-Man stuffed dolls.

“The black one's for my older son, and the blue one for my younger son,” he says with a smile. “They'll love them.”

Victoria Mott of Arnold says she probably wouldn't be able to get her daughters, ages 2 and 6, many Christmas gifts without the center, because of other necessities.

“I have so many bills and things I have to pay,” she says. “This the first year I've come here.

“It's amazing,” she says. “I'm so happy they have something here for the people who need it.”

Johns, who has been going to the center for help for seven years, says the quality of the toys the center gives makes the experience even better.

“They wouldn't give you anything they wouldn't take home to their own kids,” she says, examining the stuffed monkey she is going to give her daughter. “The staff is awesome.

“I never met anyone here who wasn't nice,” she adds. “It's just a great place.”

R.A. Monti is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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