Like the postal service, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” stays Toys of Hope couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. But the Huntington-based nonprofit is more flexible with its service, delivering to homes, shelters, wooded areas and even parking lots.
Two Toys of Hope vans crisscross Long Island to make deliveries and pick up donations, and volunteers carry a bin of toiletries along with warm coats in the winter.
“We offer them to people who need those items,” said Toys of Hope founder Melissa Blomberg Doktofsky of Huntington. “We pull into parking lots where we know people might be who need some help. A mom will say the coat is all she needs, but she’s shoeless, so we offer her shoes. We don’t want to make them feel bad, so we make it like they’re doing us the favor, tell them we need to empty the van before we call it a night, so please take something. They leave with brand-new clothes. Some of them started calling us ‘parking lot angels.’ ”
Giving is always in season for Doktofsky, and helping children and their families — plus their four-legged friends — remains Toys of Hope’s key mission.
What started 22 years ago with a toy distribution to about 50 children at Christmas has grown into a year-round charity that now hands out clothes, hygiene products and small household goods along with toys. Doktofsky, 47, started Toys of Hope in 1994 because she was interested in a charity where 100 percent of donations went to help recipients.
“I wanted it to be about people helping people,” she said. “I thought, well, everyone has a little time, and if we could get the community to band together and people could donate an hour, or whatever they could do, there’d be a group of like-minded people who want to make a huge difference in society.”
Over the years, Doktofsky has attracted volunteers and donors who feel the same. She estimates that Toys of Hope helps about 65,000 people each year. The operation rents warehouse space in Huntington Station, where volunteers organize projects ranging from holiday toy deliveries, to seasonal clothing donations, to deliveries of home goods for families leaving a shelter to start afresh in rental housing.
Donations of money and goods directly fund those the charity helps. “That means each year is a fresh start,” Doktofsky said. “We rely on those monetary donations to keep our vans running, and for gas for deliveries. Our biggest need right now is for warehouse space. We rent a small space, but we need more room so we can take donations for things that are out of season until we can give them away, and to work. We have to move things outside so we have room to work, then back in. It takes three times as long to pack out a donation.”
Volunteers — no one gets a salary — make the nonprofit run. There’s a core group of about a dozen regular volunteers with Doktofsky and Brian Hansen, director of operations, essentially working full-time at the charity, while other volunteers work many hours during the busy season and as needed the rest of the year. The nonprofit also checks licenses and references for those who help make deliveries.
Andrew Doktofsky, 56, Melissa’s husband, handles the bookkeeping, leases, contracts and correspondence, and keeps track of all donations. Last year, Toys of Hope raised $87,000, he said. “I’m happy to do it,” said the retired New York City police captain who now works as a lawyer in Huntington. “This is an on-the-ground operation where we bring help to people where they live.”
Doktofsky said her nonprofit looks for “the poorest of the poor. We approach them and offer them help — people living in cars, in the woods. We get tips from local police, clergy, school nurses and other community activists. After 22 years, you kind of know the spots to look and places to go.”
The group this year opened a small storefront at 640 New York Ave. in Huntington, said Andrew Doktofsky. There’s a large box outside the store where donors can leave new items, and the store occasionally opens and sells some of the items donated by retail corporate donors to help Toys of Hope raise money. More volunteers could help keep it open on a regular basis, he said.
Special day at Oheka
Laura Anders has been working with Toys of Hope since 1998. “People don’t realize there’s such a great need on Long Island,” she said. “It gives us great joy to help meet that need.”
Anders, of Smithtown, contacts companies for donations and has looked for warehouse space for the nonprofit. She also enjoys dressing as a costumed character for the group’s Christmas parties for 3- to 5-year-olds at Oheka Castle in Huntington, going this year dressed as Cruella de Vil, the character from “101 Dalmatians.”
“Their eyes are wide open as they come in the door, and they’re just blown away when they see their favorite characters,” Anders said. “It’s wonderful to see.”
The 300-plus children attending the annual Oheka event are sent home with a goody bag, which this year contained toys and a stuffed animal or doll.
“It’s awesome, the kids will remember this,” said Selena Thurston, assistant director of Community and Family Head Start in Far Rockaway, Queens. Ninety of the preschool’s 3- to 5-year-olds attended the event. “We want to say thank you for the commitment and passion that brought us all here.”
“We’ve had a great time. We’re very happy to be invited,” said Lisbeth Lopez of Valley Stream. Her 3-year-old daughter Kaylin Quinones hugged her legs while looking around the decorated ballroom full of children, watching classmates dance with students dressed as Super Girl and Snow White. Lopez helped chaperone her daughter’s preschool class from Five Towns Early Learning Center of Inwood.
The Pat Covelli Foundation supported Toys of Hope for years, starting with giving the nonprofit money to buy winter coats, then expanding its support to also help fund the Oheka event as it recognized the group’s directed efforts to help children, said John Covelli, 55, of Woodbury, the foundation’s president.
“You can see firsthand what they do, and it’s pretty amazing,” he said. “I love to see kids happy — that was my brother’s [Pasquale’s] passion,” he said.
The foundation donated $15,000 to Toys of Hope this year in honor of Pasquale Covelli, known as Pat, who died in 1999 after battling diabetes and kidney disease for much of his life.
James Cole, 50, of Port Washington, has helped Toys of Hope on and off since its founding in 1994. Cole, who is a nurse, most recently dressed up as a reindeer for a toy delivery to a school in Brooklyn, and then brought his children to help package toys one evening. He often picks up donations and makes deliveries for the nonprofit.
His sister, Warrie, was a childhood friend of Doktofsky’s, and the two have remained close since Warrie’s death in 1994, a few months before Toys of Hope was founded.
”She’s godmother to my two kids,” Cole said. “Warrie and Melissa used to share crayons. We were foster children and she was amazed by all the toys Melissa had when she visited her. Melissa realized how fortunate she was, and the idea [to help the less fortunate] grew from that.”
Cole’s children, Kameha, 12, and Nirvana, 10, sometimes help out at Toys of Hope, packing dolls for distribution and handing out toys and other donations.
“I love giving things out and seeing them being grateful,” Kameha said. “It makes me feel that it’s possible to be friends with everyone. I like how it makes me feel.”
Finding the underserved
The work isn’t glamorous, and it’s often done at night and in the worst weather, Doktofsky said.
“Your hair will be sopping wet since you’re out in the rain all night, and we’ve literally climbed fences and left bags in their backyards,” she said of those receiving donations. “You’re going to underserved areas and you’re seeing some really sad conditions. Then you get this look, ‘All this is for me? Are you sure?’ People are so good, so appreciative, that they don’t want to take too much from us.”
She works with parents to make deliveries late in the evening when children will be asleep, so the parents can hide the gifts until the holiday.
In addition to toys, the group has added other programs, including Adopt a Family, where donors can offer support to a family at the holidays or anytime during the year. It added pet food and supplies through its Poor Paws program when Doktofsky realized on one visit how skinny the family’s dog was and asked if it was sick. When the family explained they shared their food with the dog and sometimes there wasn’t enough, she realized pets needed some help, too.
“For many of the people we help, especially for the elderly and veterans, their companion animal is their lifeline,” Doktofsky said.
Another of the nonprofit’s programs is Out for a Day, an opportunity to take a group to a ballgame, the movies or a special event, like a concert.
Doktofsky estimates that about 50 percent of Toys of Hope’s deliveries are made without ever meeting the recipients. They find them through referrals and word-of-mouth, she said.
“We deliver a message with every delivery where we explain to them the gift isn’t just from Toys of Hope but from generous donors that care about them, too,” Doktofsky said. “That it’s a group effort, a community effort. We’ve seen that message really sticks with people.”
Sign me up
Toys of Hope especially needs more warehouse space and volunteers, as well as monetary donations. More space would let them accept out-of-season donations and hold them until needed, and make preparing donations go more smoothly, said founder Melissa Doktofsky. In addition, the charity needs gift cards for families, as well as low-denomination gift cards of $10 or $15 to give to teens in shelters.
For more information on volunteering or donating to Toys of Hope, visit toysofhope.org or leave a message at 631-271-8697.
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Over the course of an evening, Brian Hansen climbs ladders in a warehouse, pulls pallets stacked with boxes of toys outside to load a truck and keeps a running count of how many boxes of Legos are on hand to make sure enough are loaded to distribute at an upcoming parade.
As Toys of Hope’s director of operations, Hansen, 61, of Huntington Station, makes deliveries at all hours of the day and night, loads and unloads toys and makes sure items are picked up and dropped off across Long Island.
He has volunteered with the group for 19 years, since meeting the nonprofit’s founder, Melissa Doktofsky, at a networking event.
Hansen now spends most of his time orchestrating toy pickups and drop-offs, and packing trucks for delivery since fully retiring from his job as a production supervisor at the now-closed Entenmann’s Bakery facility in Bay Shore and as a general manager with the Checkers fast-food franchise.
He uses his knack for building things to make toy boxes and other items for Toys of Hope, and about 12 years ago he started dressing as Santa for many of its events.
“I love the charity,” Hansen said. “It’s a baby to me, it’s something I’m committed to until I’m no longer functioning. I’m grateful for having the opportunity to volunteer. This is home, this is family.”
He lauded the generosity of Long Islanders and said Toys of Hope is fortunate to be able to carry out its mission for so long. Still, there is room for improvement, Hansen said.
“We need to get better at fundraising, and let people know we’re a year-round charity, not just at the holidays,” he said.
Doktofsky knows she can count on Hansen in all seasons.
“He lives for this, he’s so committed,” she said. “He keeps track of the inventory and does a lot of the heavy lifting, too. Between him and my husband, it’s the power team.”
— Kay Blough