The 1st Infantry Division has some soldiers working a different job this holiday season, one with colorful sweatshirts and Santa hats.
For five months a year, soldiers staff the Operation Santa Claus Headquarters at 261 Stuart Ave., Fort Riley. They collect, sort and organize toys for children.
Last year, the Operation Santa Claus toy drive distributed more than 5,000 toys to troops’ families who were in financial need or had a soldier overseas.
“Part of being a soldier is being deployed, but you still have to provide for your family,” Christine Benne, Operation Santa’s partner’s Association of the United States Army representative, said.
For its 30th year, the Association of the United States Army’s goals have grown. Operation Santa is seeking $120,000 worth of $15-$20 unwrapped toys. Since the ribbon cutting on Nov. 6, around 210 toys have been collected in addition to the 1,100 donated throughout the non-distributing months.
“It’s just nice to do something for someone,” Sgt. 1st Class Francis Persing said. “We don’t get to see the kids’ faces, but when the parents come in they see the value of the things people give. It’s new stuff, quality stuff … they’re in shock from some of the things we have. And we’re actually a small operation, not like Fort Bliss or Fort Hood. They have warehouses; we just have one room.”
Soldiers or their spouses can apply to receive gifts from Operation Santa. Children up to 18 years old usually average two to three gifts from Operation Santa. Elves buy 5,600 to 6,000 toys at once with financial donations. Last year, 200 volunteers wrapped presents at the workshop. Donors can even mail toys to the post.
Some corporate partners have given gifts in the past: K-Mart gave many of the toys from its toy section to Operation Santa when it closed down and Aeropostale gave clothing in teen sizes to the drive when it left Manhattan Town Center.
Neighbors Salina, Junction City, Chapman and Wamego have also pitched in. Wamego Public Library has a donation box for the toy drive that ties in with its annual The Big Read program, which focuses on the book of the Vietnam War era, “The Things They Carried.”
“We’ve already gotten a few donations,” said Molly Wallace, children’s librarian at Wamego Public Library. “Partnering with them has been nice since the book has to do with the war. It was an extra thing we added to the program – we wanted to do something with Fort Riley because it was close to the holidays,”
The hardest group to buy for has been 10-15 year-old boys and girls, which tend to prefer gift cards they can spend themselves. Operation Santa does not accept stuffed toys, but does take donations of wrapping paper and tape to put the finishing touches on the holiday presents before they even leave the workshop.
Parents can begin picking out the toys for their children on Dec. 19. Student and community volunteers are welcome to help prepare for the big opening.