NODAWAY, Iowa — When you distribute 9,000 refurbished toys every Christmas, the work never really stops.
One afternoon last week, the washing machine clinked at the home of Vince and Judy Else as stuffed animals — Grover and Oscar — were cleaned inside, beady plastic eyes smacking against the tub. These stuffed animals will be distributed to needy children in 11 months as part of the Elses' Share-a-Toy program.
“We wash more toys than we do clothes,” said Judy Else, 71. She and husband Vince, 76, have been refurbishing and giving away toys to needy families at Christmas for 50 years.
The work doesn't stop even when the shop in which you stored, cleaned and repaired the toys burns down, like it did in the early-morning hours of Dec. 17.
As Judy, a retired nurse, watched the shop — actually a small 100-year-old house — burn, she thought that maybe it was God telling them that, after 50 years, it was time to hang up their Santa hats.
But then an outpouring of support from the region led them to decide to rebuild — and keep the program alive.
“We'll find a way,” said Vince, a retired school teacher. “As I've told people, when you drive down the road and hit a bump, you keep right on going.”
Private donations and tip nights at local restaurants, where all the tips are donated, have raised about $6,000 for the rebuilding effort.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles in Red Oak hosted a fish fry and bake sale Friday night.
Jessi Gaunt, 31, of nearby Red Oak is a prime mover in the fundraising effort and an administrator of the “Operation Rebuild” group on Facebook.
Gaunt was one of Vince Else's physical education students years ago in Villisca. She and other students are organizing a soup supper in February.
As an adult, Gaunt worked with Judy Else at the Villisca Good Samaritan Center. And in 2011, she and her husband, Andrew, had to use Share-a-Toy to supply gifts to their own children.
“We have five children of our own. Christmas can be pretty tight for us,” Gaunt said. “Their program really helped us out.”
There are thousands of families around southwest Iowa that might say the same thing. Demand for toys has increased in recent years as the economy has struggled, Vince said.
“Not only do kids get toys, but their parents get the satisfaction from being able to get presents for their children,” he said.
For years, the Elses refurbished the toys in their home on the south side of Nodaway, a town of about 115 in western Adams County.
Share-a-Toy began in 1962 when a student in a Sunday school class Vince taught said he would go without presents that Christmas. Vince found an old toy tractor, spruced it up and gave it to the boy's father, who presented it to him on Christmas morning.
“He came back the following Sunday, just all excited, because he got a toy for Christmas,” Vince said.
The program grew steadily over the years. About five years ago, the Elses bought the single-story white house next door for the sole purpose of repairing and storing toys. When donations arrived — from places like Red Oak, Ottumwa and southeast Nebraska — that's where they went.
Fortunately, the vast majority of the 2012 presents had already been moved out of the building at the time of the blaze. The toys are distributed at the Nodaway community center. Parents come by during set hours, and can pick up several items for each child.
It's not yet known how much it will cost to replace the shop. A metal building already has been purchased for about $5,000. The concrete work will take about that much. Then there are the plumbing, wiring, insulation …
“There's still lots to go yet,” Gaunt said.
But the Elses are ready. On their property, just south of the flattened dirt where their shop once stood, red reflectors mark off where a new 30-by-36-foot building will stand.
Rebuilding toys isn't the Elses' only good works. They also volunteer at the Food Bank and the American Heart Association, and in August they man an information booth at the Iowa State Fair, pointing the way to fried Twinkies, pork-chops-on-sticks and the butter cow. In recognition of their work, then-Gov. Chet Culver inducted them into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame in 2010.
“I guess we just enjoy doing things for other people,” Vince said. “You might say, how many men get to play with toys all day long?”
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