By Steve GhiringhelliDecember 13, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Not much snow is falling from the sky, but the Christmas spirit has descended on Fort Drum this holiday season.
On Monday morning, the 17th annual Mountain of Toys event kicked off when a hidden side door to "Santa's Workshop" swung open at the Monument Ridge Community Center, where volunteers and sponsors had transformed a portion of the building into a spectacle of gift-giving and holiday cheer.
The bustling activity is for the children of Fort Drum's 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers. Organizers said they are committed to providing every child, age 14 and younger, with at least one toy, especially to those whose Families face exceptional financial difficulties this year.
"So far, we have received about 1,000 requests for toys," said Joe McLaughlin, treasurer of Fort Drum's Sergeants Major Association, the main sponsor of the initiative. "We have experienced an outpouring of support from the community, both inside and outside the gate, with either money or toys."
Every year since the initiative began in the 1990s, thousands of free toys have gone to qualifying Families at Fort Drum.
McLaughlin said there are always a few Army Families facing tough times come the holidays.
Command Sgt. Maj. Mark H. Oldroyd, Fort Drum garrison's senior enlisted adviser, agreed. He said Soldiers of any rank can encounter financial struggles at any given time.
"Life (often) conspires to place Families in need at Christmastime," Oldroyd said.
Filled with hundreds of toys and holiday décor, the creation of Santa's Workshop for this year's Mountain of Toys was the consolidated effort of Soldiers and family readiness volunteers of 1st Brigade Combat Team.
Staff Sgt. Joseph Price, master resilience trainer for 1st BCT, said he pushed off leave so he could be on hand to ensure a smooth operation at Santa's Workshop.
"Even my daughter came in with me on weekends to work here," Price said of his 11-year-old, Hailey. "She wrapped all the presents. She was really into all of it. She's always been that way."
This year, the Mountain of Toys program also enlisted the help of Fort Drum Cub Scout Pack 26. The new partnership commissioned Scouts with designing, decorating and deploying toy collection boxes around post.
At Santa's Workshop, the toys on display -- mostly new, unwrapped, and sorted by age and gender -- are being distributed through next Friday to Soldiers already signed up and approved by their command's senior enlisted adviser.
After selecting a toy, participants receive stocking-stuffers and may enter their name for a drawing, which will present the more expensive toys, such as bicycles and skateboards.
Some of the larger toys were donated as a result of a road march conducted last week by 7th Engineer Battalion in which Soldiers carried rucks filled with toys.
The battalion ultimately gave more than 200 items to Mountain of Toys.
Lisa Jefferds, 1st BCT family readiness support assistant and spouse of Sgt. 1st Class Brian Jefferds of Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division (LI), said she remembers times past when her Family struggled financially through the holidays, but they were helped out by others in the community.
"It all comes back around," said Jefferds, who said she brought her daughters in on weekends to help organize Santa's Workshop. "It's not a job (for me). It means a lot to be (able to do this)."
When the event finishes next Friday, Jefferds said the Mountain of Toys program will make a monetary donation to the 1st BCT FRG for its involvement. She said that can help spouses while their Soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan next year.
Price, whose regular duties with the brigade include helping Soldiers find help for personal problems, said he has appreciated the opportunity to help his fellow Soldiers and Family Members through the Mountain of Toys program.
No stranger to hardships himself, Price said he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 when his wife, Jessica, was struck by a drunk driver as she was returning from Christmas shopping. He said all of the gifts in the trunk were destroyed and the car incurred more than $10,000 in damages after landing in a ditch.
"They said she was lucky to walk away," he said. "I didn't get home until about a week and a half later, literally right before Christmas."
Because he did not know about Mountain of Toys at the time, Price said he "scavenged around" to find gifts for his four children that Christmas.
"You never know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen," he said. "It seems like things always hit right at this time of the year."
As the crowds filter through Santa's Workshop over the next week or so, Mountain of Toys organizers say donation efforts ahead of the event have been very successful.
"We could not be more pleased," McLaughlin said. "We are looking forward to another successful Mountain of Toys (initiative)."