Highlands students eager to stuff a bus with Toys for Tots

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

Two years ago, Highlands students helped a Pittsburgh radio station “stuff a bus” for Toys for Tots, but something was missing.

“The kids took the toys to Monroeville,” said Misty Chybrzynski, the district's spokeswoman. “But the toys go to kids in that area. Our kids were really surprised by that.

“It's a great cause, but our students wanted to help kids in this area.”

So, on Dec. 14, students throughout the Highlands district will stuff their own bus full of new, unwrapped toys for less fortunate children.

The bus, donated by W.L. Roenigk Transportation Inc., will be at the middle school from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then it will roll to Grandview Upper Elementary School, where it will collect toys from 1 to 3 p.m.

The Valley News Dispatch and its parent company, Trib Total Media, have provided $2,000 in free advertising for the event.

Toys for Tots is a charity run by the Marines Corps that collects toys for needy children.

Since there is a no locally based Marine Corps unit, members of Marine Corps League 827, including reservists, honorably discharged and active duty Marines, located in Springdale, run the local Toys for Tots.

“All the toys that are donated in the area, 100 percent, stay in the area,” said Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Geppert, who heads the Toys for Tots campaign for the league. “When an organization stuffs a bus, we take the toys to our location in Springdale and store them there, and then bag them and send them to the families.”

Geppert said his organization serves about 300 families from Fox Chapel to Kittanning and east into Westmoreland County.

“Last year alone, we gave toys to about 3,600 kids,” he said.

The event is being run mostly by students who are being advised by Highlands High School math teachers Mindy Eckenrod and Sherry Armstrong.

“When we did stuff a bus two years ago, I was personally able to see what effect it had on people,” said Jacob Diller, 18, of Harrison, a Highlands 12th-grader who is one of the student organizers of the event. “Before, the toys were more spread out.

“We made it a point to try and get it more localized.”

Brandon Johnson, 16, who is an 11th-grader from Harrison, and another student organizer said helping local children have a fun-filled Christmas is extremely significant.

“It's really important to give back, if you can give back,” he said. “I think everyone deserves to have an authentic holiday.

“Times are rough,” he said. “It's spectacular if we can help people have a happy holiday.”

Abigail Wolfe, 16, an 11th-grader from Harrison and an organizer, said rallying support throughout the school district wasn't very hard.

“We've been spreading the word, so I think a lot of people are informed about it,” Wolfe said. “The community we live in is so great, I figured everyone would want to help.”

Geppert said that seeing so many young people want to help less-fortunate children is inspiring to him.

“It's pretty motivating. I'm at a loss of words about it,” he said. “I think it's inspirational to see that they take on the challenge and have dedication to continue the success of this program and be productive in off-school time and make it successful.

“This program is near and dear to my heart; every year it seems to get bigger and better.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance reporter for Trib Total Media.

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