By Charlie M. Holmes
The Daily Star
---- — ONEONTA — Just before 1:30 p.m. Saturday, a train whistle blew to the southwest of Oneonta, triggering a cry of delight from a crowd of children. Gathered at the railroad crossing in Neahwa Park with their families, the children had spent the past half-hour standing as close to the tracks as they dared, looking for the Marine Corps Reserves’ Toys for Tots train, and now it was thundering around the curve toward them.
The screech of metal scraping against metal filled the air, the train rolled to a stop and Santa climbed down the steps to hand out toys and coats. To one side, Sgt. Bob Becker watched with a smile on his face.
Becker has been coordinating the Toys for Tots campaign in Albany for 45 years. Fifteen years ago, he started scheduling trains with Amtrak and Canadian Pacific so that kids outside Albany could get toys, too.
“In Port Henry, we gave one of the kids a bike,” Becker recaled. “He got his hands on it and three of us tried to get his hands off of it. We could not get the hands off. I’m not kidding. We asked his mother where her car was and then we picked him and the bike up, carried them to the car and put them in. That always is in the back of my mind – how that kid was so happy.”
The field marketing manager for Dunkin’ Donuts, Eric Stensland, who has been riding the train with Becker for the past four years, has similar stories to tell.
“My first year, a little child brought back a toy and said, ‘Can I have a coat instead?’ and it just really, really hit home,” Stensland said.
The child got his coat, and a toy as well. The next year, Stensland said, the company gave an extra $5,000 to make sure all the children could have coats.
There were 70 volunteers aboard the train with him Saturday, not including the 45 Becker left behind in Schenectady. Nevertheless, he said he could always use more – especially in Oneonta.
“I’m trying to get someone to be a coordinator in this area for Toys for Tots,” Becker explained. “We’re only hitting a small portion. There’s a lot more out there that are probably hurting that would love to have a gift.”
The Toys for Tots train only stops for 20 minutes each year in Oneonta to a relatively small crowd, but spends about an hour in places like Cobleskill, where it attracts hundreds, Becker said.
Anyone who is interested in coordinating the Toys for Tots program in Oneonta should go to toysfortots.org to start the process of becoming a volunteer. Dunkin’ Donuts would also like to hear from franchisees in the area who are interested in participating in the event.
Becker has spent $70,000 on toys so far this year, but he says he’s going to have to spend more in order to fulfill the wishes of the 125,000 kids that he intends to serve.
To make a donation, send a check to Toys for Tots, P.O. Box 3456, Schenectady, NY 12303.