Toy Rescue Mission in Tacoma, WA

"In the business of delivering smiles"

Thanks to Toy Rescue Mission and the Barkleys, Misty and her family were able to make the best out of a massive dilemma. (Credit: Karol Barkley)

Once Upon a Toy Rescue Mission…

Toys, though not a basic or critical life need like food and shelter, are the essential tools children need to carry out the all-important task of playing. The act of playing is as important to a child’s emotional and mental development as food and shelter are to their physical wellbeing.

Once upon a time there was no Toy Rescue Mission. Low income parents struggled to provide the basics of living for their families, and Christmas brought fresh struggles and heartache as they tried to make meager budgets stretch to cover the gifts their children could only dream of.

My own children were grown and had flown the proverbial nest, and providing them with Christmas toys was the furthest thing from my mind. I was struggling with the personal heartache that is empty-nest syndrome, and on a quest to fill this void. So, I sought and found counsel from a wise woman who knowingly informed me that I now needed to pursue a new direction towards finding fulfillment and purpose at this new juncture in my life. Did I say she was wise? Well, she was, but at the time I didn’t think so, because as much as I pressed her for suggestions or specific direction, she withheld those specifics, telling me I would have to make those discoveries for myself.

The path to the discovery didn’t appear as a vision or an “aha” moment, but instead, came when I least expected it. My favorite pastime had always been to frequent thrift stores, augmenting our own limited income with decor I could afford and breathe new life into it by otherwise repurposing it to suit my personal tastes. One day as I was out on yet another hunt at my favorite thrift store for more buried treasure, and the over-flowing toy bin caught my eye. Toys? Now what would a middle-aged woman with no grandchildren want with toys? But, I was drawn to them just like I was to the home decor treasures. Many were still in like-new condition; I felt sure that with a little elbow grease and washing, a touch up here or there, they would look like new. But then, what to do with them? And, that’s when an idea was born. An idea that, over the ensuing years, became a reality that would rescue not only me from my self-absorbed loneliness, but also rescue once-loved toys from certain destruction in local landfills and thousands of parents who couldn’t provide the “Toyland” Christmases their children dreamed of. It would rescue thousands upon thousands of poverty-level children from meager Christmases, and eventually expanded to include not just Christmas gifts, but also birthday gifts, Easter baskets, school supplies, and encompass needy senior citizens (more about that later)!

It didn’t happen overnight, but after four years of sleepless nights, hard work, tears, perseverance (all before the advent of the household computer), and the help of caring individuals in my community, Toy Rescue Mission (TRM) was officially born! What started as a simple hobby emerged as a full-fledged nonprofit organization and registered charity with the Secretary of Washington State. It’s an organization that always has been largely volunteer-run, and receives no state or Federal funding, nor has any affiliation with any specific religious organizations. Instead, TRM receives its primary support from individuals, private foundation grants, local businesses (both in-kind and monetary donations), and a wide-variety of churches.

Now, you may be asking yourself (with good reason), how does an average, mostly-stay-at-home-mom gain the knowledge and skills required to fledge a non-profit organization? Well, let me tell you: Along the way, as my hobby grew, community volunteers began offering their time, talents, and some monetary donations to keep the vision alive. An attorney offered to help me with the required paperwork, a volunteer coordinator offered her time to organize and oversee volunteers, a webmaster offered to develop and maintain a TRM website, and numerous individuals offered their experience on the Board of Directors. Over time, thousands of volunteers, public and private organizations, foundation grants, and a whole array of fundraisers provided the organization with the support needed to expand its outreach.

Toy Rescue Mission

Here is Be Great!'s first official teaser for our segment on Toy Rescue Mission!Toy Rescue Mission provides a community service blessing tens of thousands of families around the South Puget Sound. Their services go above and beyond any others in their field and they have been generously active for over 25 years. After interviewing Martha Davis and observing their team over Christmas 2017, we were blown away by how much this small organization is accomplishing year-round. Toy Rescue Mission refurbishes and recycles gently-used toys for disadvantaged children and seniors in care facilities while providing meaningful volunteer opportunities for the young-at-heart.As a 501c3 nonprofit, TRM is nearly 100% volunteer and has been operating with no state or federal funding and they aren't affiliated with DSHS or any other state agency. BGProducers: Chance, Azmyth & BGEditor: Will Occhi

Posted by Be Great on Wednesday, 16 May 2018

As a fledgling foundation without paid staff, TRM learned early-on to rely on volunteers to sustain its ever-growing vision. One win-win program (Leaders for Tomorrow) was developed that offered high school and post-high school students learning opportunities and on-the-job experience in an internship setting to explore the knowledge and skills related to their personal fields of interest. In exchange for their volunteer time they:

  • Explored new skills or further developed existing ones.
  • Demonstrated valuable job-related and marketable skills.
  • Gained job-specific work experience for resume development.
  • Were motivated to become more focused and goal-oriented.
  • Earned credits that satisfied high school community service or continuing education requirements.
  • Gained a new appreciation for what giving back to the community really meant!
Robert Butler, a volunteer carpenter, receiving a volunteer recognition award for the countless hours spent donating his time and skills to the Toy Rescue Mission. (Credit: Karol Barkley)

Those at Toy Rescue Mission believe that a constructive work environment builds strong character in individuals that, in turn, contributes to strong communities. Work helps build a sense of independence, self-confidence, and a sense of belonging to a contributing team.

Another of our specialized programs, Project Special Skills, provides select opportunity for individuals with special needs to learn new tasks that contribute to a healthy work environment and ultimately lead to the individual’s personal success. Through this program, TRM seeks to enhance their quality and dignity of life by eliminating barriers to opportunity and personal growth. With the help of our team of dedicated, caring volunteer-mentors, these individuals are provided with a challenging and welcoming learning environment where they can hone fine-motor skills as they work on toy restoration, and learn housekeeping tasks as they perform needed janitorial functions. As the agency grew, the demand for its outreach took on new year-round dimensions. As Director and President of the organization, I realized early-on the success of the program and community interest generated by the thousands of gifts that were meeting children’s wish lists. New programs and volunteer-outreach opportunities were added. One such program, Seniors Share, encourages able-bodied senior volunteers to use their professional skills, talents, and hobbies (sewing, knitting, woodworking, etc.) to provide gifts for seniors afflicted with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

There isn’t time or space to tell of all the blessings TRM has brought, and continues to bring, to our Puget Sound communities. I retired from the agency after 21 years of service and turned it over to the one person I knew was fully capable of carrying on my passion and vision, Martha Davis. Martha had spent years honing her experience and skills as the Board of Director’s Vice President. Seven years ago, after retiring my position as TRM’s Director/President, Martha stepped up and continued to fulfill the mission and vision of TRM and has continued to apply her personal acumen acquired throughout her professional management career. During the extended illness and recent passing of Martha’s husband, Clarence, she found, and continues to find, healing and blessing in the selfless service she supplies to the organization. Toy Rescue Mission would honestly not have been able to continue so successfully without the dedication of this loyal woman! Martha and I can both attest to the support and sacrifice our husbands provided so that others in our communities might benefit!

Now, 27 years later, Toy Rescue Mission still exists with the enlistment of many loyal volunteers, students, senior citizens, and professionals. Though I have stepped down from my years of service to TRM, the organization is now giving back to me in my retirement! Instead of my days being packed with over-flowing with toys, grant writing, fundraising, special projects, and volunteer oversight, they are now packed with an off-shoot of Toy Rescue Mission’s outreach. Frequently, when I would do speaking engagements to promote TRM and its needs, people inquired what inspired me to voluntarily give of my time and energies to initiate and serve this agency. After repeated explanations, I decided it was now time to tell the rest of the story. To this end, I have written and published a pre-teen book that shares the impetus that led to the agency’s founding. Proceeds from the sale of Forever Friends* will contribute toward the on-going operations support that will help ensure that the mission of TRM** is able to continue contributing to making our little corner of our community The Nicest Place in America!

*Karol Barkley and D.G. Smeall, Forever Friends (Meadville, PA: Christian Faith Publishing, 2017).

**Mission Statement of Toy Rescue Mission: Toy Rescue Mission’s purpose is to refurbish and recycle gently-used toys for disadvantaged children, and seniors in care-facilities, while providing meaningful volunteer opportunities for the young at heart.

Stories About Toy Rescue Mission

Toy Rescue Mission has almost always been  a 100% volunteer-run nonprofit. That was true as well during the years I was the Director/President of the agency. In order to contribute to our household income, I was working a full-time job and focused on developing TRM in the evenings and on weekends. At the time this incident occurred, I was working as the Volunteer Services Coordinator for the Mel Korum YMCA in Puyallup, WA. At times my job required me to work over-time.

On one such evening, I was hard at work on a special project when the evening custodian came into my cubicle. In heavily accented English, he apologized for interrupting my work. I stopped to take a break and introduce myself and ask him a little more about where he was from and his background. He said his name was Sergey and shared that he had come to the U.S. with his family from Russia just two years prior. His story touched my heart when he said he had been a professor at a university in Russia but couldn’t secure anything here in the U.S. except for the custodial position despite his background, education, and experience. Knowing the limited salary of a custodian, and since it was nearing the Christmas season, I asked if he had children, to which he responded that he had three — all under age 10. I asked if he had been able to purchase gifts for them yet and he was clearly embarrassed when he replied that he hadn’t been able to afford them. Of course, he had no idea why I was asking, so I quickly explained that I wasn’t trying to be nosy, but had a valid reason for asking. I explained about Toy Rescue Mission and the services we provided and asked if he could come to our Outreach Store to find gifts for the children. He explained that he and his wife only had one vehicle which he needed during the day and evenings because he was working two jobs. I asked if there was a good time when I might visit his home and meet his family, and he gave me a time when they would all be present. After securing ages and genders of his children, and their personal preferences, I scheduled a time for the visit.

As the day drew near, I packaged up the gifts, along with wrapping paper, bows, stockings, stocking stuffers, and five gifts per child, loading it all into my van. I made my way over to the notoriously low-income side of Tacoma. I was very familiar with the neighborhoods since my husband, children and I had lived in that area ourselves for 13 years. Sergey was watching out his front window, and came out to meet me as I pulled up in front of their house. As I opened the back tailgate of my van, packages that had been piled high began tumbling out. He called to his wife (who was watching from the doorway) and asked for her help. As both of them stood there staring into the van, it didn’t dawn on me that they didn’t understand that ALL of the items were for their family. As we began unloading the van, they asked which ones to take in, to which I replied, “All of them!” They stopped dead in their tracks. In Sergey’s broken English he tried to explain that they couldn’t afford all the gifts I was delivering, and that’s when it occurred to me that my earlier explanation of the workings of TRM had not been understood by this dear man. He thought I was selling the toys! When I recovered from my surprise, I explained that ALL of TRM’s gifts were given free-of-charge! At that moment, this dear couple caught me off-guard when they both began weeping as they stood in the cold, dark street, arms full of toys. As we turned toward the house, I could see three little faces with big eyes staring out the window. I knew they couldn’t see the items we were holding because I had taken the precaution of loading them all into black trash bags. After meeting the children, I got back into my now-empty car and began the drive home. It was then that the truth dawned on me — and my heart welled up with joy at the scene I had been privileged to witness. I was just a small part of a bigger picture — Toy Rescue Mission and all its hundreds of volunteers and financial supporters who worked together to bring Christmas, Easter, birthday joy to families in need, just like this one, all over our South Puget Sound region. With tears now cascading down my own cheeks, I thanked God for the privilege of being a part of this organization.

Toy Rescue Mission’s Christmas gift-giving season 2007 was winding down. It was the evening of our last day of giving, and all the volunteers and Board members had gone home. It had been a long and rewarding day, and I too was ready to head home. Just a few more loose ends to tie up before we closed down until mid-January. Since I was the last one to leave, I checked all the doors to be sure everything was locked up, and was in the process of turning out all the lights lights when the phone rang. I knew if I let it ring two or three more times the answering machine would pick up and the caller would hear the message that our season was over, and TRM’s shop was empty. The toys that remained were those left from the abundance we accumulated during the pre-holiday season when parents cleaned out their children’s toy boxes in anticipation of new toys to replace the old.

For some reason I couldn’t ignore this one last call. I just felt I needed to answer it. I picked up the receiver just before the answering machine kicked in. It was then I heard a sad, soft voice asking if we had any toys left. I explained to the caller that, indeed, we did, but they had not been safety-checked, cleaned or shrink-wrapped; they were not shelf-ready, and there was no way we could release them in that condition. She then inquired if I knew of any shelters that might still have any space available. Since TRM works hand-in-hand with shelters to distribute many of our toys, it was a valid question. But, being so late in the season and so near to Christmas (only a week away), I told her I doubted there were any agencies that still had room. I asked her name, her circumstances, if she had children, and where they were currently staying. The sad voice now had a name, Misty. She explained that her husband had left them (the mother and four children) stranded in California with nothing but the family van and some clothing. Just before leaving, he told her she was going to have to make it on her own because he was leaving her for another woman and taking everything. She quickly found that he had taken the funds in their joint bank account, and cleaned out their home of all belongings. Having no job or money to purchase anything, and no way to hire anyone to represent her, she did the only thing she knew to do; left California and drove with the children to Tacoma, Washington to temporarily move in with her sister in an apartment. That lasted about a week before the apartment manager discovered all the extra residents in the sister’s apartment, and told Misty they would have to move. Now, truly with nowhere to go and no one to turn to, she packed her few belongings and four children into her car and began a nightmare existence of living out of her vehicle…which led her to make that desperate call to me.

My heart was breaking for this dear woman and her children. How could anyone leave them in this circumstance? I promised I would try my best to find something for her if she could give me a half hour, but I knew in my heart-of-hearts that this would be near-impossible at this late hour and so close to Christmas. I dug out my list of all the family shelters in the area and called every last one, but there was “no room at the inn” anywhere! I hung up from the last call with a heavy heart, knowing full-well I just couldn’t turn this family away. I HAD to do something! So, first I called my Board of Directors to get their approval for my plan. Then, I called the only one left that I felt could help me — my husband — and shared this woman’s plight with him. I knew that if he agreed, then this family was meant to come to our house, but if he said no, I was out of options. After many years of marriage, I knew my husband. He is a kind, gentle, and loving man, and of course, he said we could welcome them into our home.

Now, if the story ended here, the reader might think, “What a nice or generous thing to do.” But, this story isn’t really about me or my husband. We were just there to be channels of blessing.

I met Misty that rain-soaked night in the parking lot of our local Goodwill Store. I felt that would give me time to assess the situation to see if her story appeared to be legitimate. I wasn’t prepared for the four young faces staring back at me as I pulled into the parking lot. Once I confirmed that she was, indeed, Misty, I told her to follow me home.

The children that tumbled out of the car that night were tired, scared, hungry and rain-soaked. Once inside, we got the children into clean pajamas, fed them,  and tucked them into warm sleeping bags. Then, the adults sat in front of a warm fire while Misty shared her sad tale. I knew immediately that if my husband would consent to watching the children, Misty and I could spend the next four days locked inside TRM while we raced to beat the clock and ready toys for the children’s Christmas morning. We told the children that we were going out shopping and they felt confident that their mom would not desert them as their father had done. For the next four days Misty and I inspected, scrubbed, painted, and otherwise readied lots of toys for Christmas morning. The shrink-wrap machine kept us plenty warm in that warehouse-sized building! We were having so much fun playing Santa’s elves that we even found toys to prepare for Misty’s sister’s children.

Lest you think we had lots of gifts, but no Christmas tree to put them under…think again! Even though our children were grown and wouldn’t be coming home for the holidays, a tree was a necessity in my book! So, Christmas morning dawned warm and toasty with a fire in the fireplace, hot cocoa in the microwave, and presents over-flowing from under the tree when four sleepy-eyed children crawled out of their warm sleeping bags. But, there was one more surprise; a gift under the tree I didn’t recognize. Misty picked it up and handed it to me. I didn’t know what to think because I knew her funds were limited, so I couldn’t imagine she would buy something for me when I had all I needed and more. I carefully opened the gift wrap to find a beautifully-framed picture of Santa with Misty’s four children smiling back at me! It was then I realized that my husband and I had been privileged to share in one of the best Christmases we had ever experienced, and now possessed a permanent reminder of this family’s gratefulness to us and to all at Toy Rescue Mission!