The Toys for Girls and Boys and Tiny Tots program set a new record for donations this year.

The dozen boxes at area businesses had to be emptied many times by volunteers.

With over 170 families counting on gifts from the program for their children's Christmas, the generosity of people in our community made it possible for each of the 485 children to receive at least three gifts from Santa, said organizers.

A family affair

The program has been run by Tanja Zentz and her father, John, with help from his wife, Jan, and other family members since 2017.

"We enjoy it very much," John said. "For many of these families, we're the only Santa they've got, I think. You ought to see their faces when they pick up the toys. The lady that got bikes for all three of her kids from a family at a church that adopted them, her eyes got as big as silver dollars. She said she couldn't believe it and started crying. I'm 86 years old, so basically I manage and plan and do those kinds of things. The hard work I don't do. At 86, you get tired no matter what you do, but if we didn't do it I don't know who would. Tanja puts in so much time and Jan helps a great deal with the sorting and bakes cookies for the volunteers and the grandsons help, too."

John said they much appreciate the help they get from church congregations who adopt a family in need.

"And the volunteers, they are so kind," he said. "Gosh, I don't know how I can say enough about it because everybody works hard. I think we enjoy it more than the families do."

He also appreciates the help from their grandsons. "They all help," he said. "It teaches them that there are people in need and we can help. And if God blesses us, we should pass that on. So it's a good training for them."

Tanja, who works as a sonographer and ultrasound technician at Park Rapids Essentia Health, said she donated about 60 hours of her time to the toy program this year.

"I'm doing all of the phone calls and text messages and paperwork, calls to volunteers and donors and businesses," she said. "My phone just doesn't stop for almost a month. I also took a couple of days off work."

Although she admits she was "super busy," she said she feels it was worth it.

"It's wonderful," she said. "There are always those special stories, like a lady who was sick in the hospital for a long time, and then her phone didn't work, but when we finally did connect she was so grateful she would have presents for her children. It makes you feel so good, being able to help people. Everybody is so grateful for it."

Cash, toy donations poured in

This year, was the first time cash donations were accepted.

"It was nice to be able to purchase gifts for families who weren't adopted," Tanja said. "If they requested boots or a coat or a child's size 8 item of clothing, we were able to go and buy those specific things. We also purchased ink and a printer and paper for making the forms families fill out. Last year, my dad paid for the forms to be printed."

John agreed that the cash donations helped tremendously.

"We don't always get enough gifts for the teenagers," he said. "We used some of the money to buy things like makeup, baseballs, footballs and basketballs. We also gave a couple of Christmas trees away to families who didn't have money to buy them. I know one was donated by the Salvage Depot."

John said he likes to imagine the children's faces lighting up on Christmas morning when they see their gifts.

'Special deliveries'

One special delivery was a bicycle for a little girl and was the only child in her family without one.

"We got two bikes donated from Walmart," Tanja said. "One was a girl's bike. We didn't know which family to give that one to. We prayed about it, and there was a family that had asked for a girl's bike. When toys got picked up, the volunteers didn't realize it went with that package of gifts. When we saw it still sitting there we called the mother at work and my boyfriend, Matt Rehborg, delivered the bike. She was so grateful and said all the boys in the family have bikes and they live out in the country on a dirt road so now her daughter will be able to go riding with them and she will be so excited."

Another special circumstance was a family in town over the holidays so the dad could get medical treatment. "The dad reached out to Pastor Norby at Calvary Lutheran and he passed on the information about our program," Tanja said. "His wife was coming up with the kids and all their toys were stolen at their house there."

Two Park Rapids residents donated money for their hotel stay and there were gifts so all three children could have Christmas here.

Rehborg said he is one of the volunteers behind the scene whose job is "packing, stacking and sorting."

He said volunteers filled 82 of the 30-gallon trash bags they use to transport toys to Lakes Area Vineyard Church in Park Rapids, plus several larger items, including five bicycles and two basketball sets.

"I'd like to thank Citizens National Bank, TruStar Federal Credit Union, Team Industries, Coldwell Banker Real Estate, the Iron Horse, Custom Sprinklers in Bemidji and all the other organizations and individuals that adopted families," Tanja said. " I'd also like to thank all of the volunteers who helped pick up, bag and distribute toys for the families. And my dad, he used his money to pay for dinner for the nights volunteers were at the church getting gifts ready for the families."

Dreams for next Christmas

The donations that were dropped off in collection boxes after gifts had been distributed were used for last-minute requests or will be saved for next year. Just like Santa, the toy drive organizers are already looking ahead to next Christmas.

Tanja said her hope is to be able to get enough cash donations to give each family a gas card and a grocery gift card or turkey dinner. "I'd love to be able to do that," she said.

They also hope to be obtain tax-exempt status for the organization. They may also design a new logo.

Tanja said she also hopes all of the families will be adopted by businesses or individuals next year. She also hopes businesses will donate restaurant and phone cards that can be given to teenagers.

Anyone interested in helping the program, may call John at 732-4051.