December 9, 2018
By: GWENDOLYN CRAIG
FORT EDWARD — Trains didn’t deliver, but trucks certainly did during the Capital Region Toys for Tots Northern New York Sheriffs Coalition Road Train Sunday.
A convoy of six tractor trailers, plus an escort of multiple emergency vehicles, rolled up to the Washington County Complex filled with toys and coats to give to dozens of families waiting in a line that wrapped around the parking lot.
“I don’t know who’s more excited, me or the kids,” said Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy.
The train had already stopped in Saratoga, where Murphy said about 50 people were waiting. After Fort Edward, the convoy was headed to Ticonderoga, Lewis, Keeseville and Rouses Point later in the day to distribute about 28,000 toys, plus warm clothing, for families in need to celebrate the holidays.
It was a positive outcome for an event that was on shaky ground earlier this year.
Railroad tracks were once, and in some respects still are, arteries connecting the hearts of the communities in upstate New York. Amtrak traditionally carried thousands of toys from place to place, but the business announced this summer that it would not continue that part of its involvement in the event.
In a statement to The Post-Star, Amtrak had said its “objective is to operate its core, scheduled train service safely, on time and efficiently, and must therefore decline to operate this charter.” Amtrak was still listed as a sponsor of the event, however, in a Dunkin’ press release, and had said it would support the collection of toys at participating stations.
Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo was not about to let Toys for Tots, which was heading into its 20th year, end.
Working with Clinton, Essex and Washington counties sheriffs’ offices, Zurlo and his office’s director of communications, Steve Gordon, got the event back up and running. Upstate Transit of Saratoga helped with deliveries, and Dunkin’, formerly Dunkin’ Donuts, also contributed $30,000 to the Toys for Tots Foundation.
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve volunteers also continued to help, and area trucking companies, including Auto Solutions, Borwegen Trucking, Dunkin’, Freihofers, R.H. Weisheit Trucking and Roberts Towing and Recovery took to transporting toys and coats Sunday instead of their usual cargo.
“People counted us out when we lost the train,” said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Vinny Roman, who coordinates Toys for Tots. Looking out at all the different people and companies that came together, he said, “This is what it’s all about.”
Jim Lafayette, Toys for Tots chairman for the American Legion Post 83 in Whitehall, was disappointed with Amtrak’s decision to pull out. He said Whitehallers grew up with the railroad. Santa Claus often makes an appearance, getting off the train in town, too, another thing that Amtrak chose not to support this year.
“It’s been a big deal since I was a kid in the 1950s,” he said. “It’s been kind of a blow to the community.”
But Lafayette said his group bought an Amtrak train ticket for Santa Claus, and he was scheduled to get off Sunday in Whitehall anyway, separate from Toys for Tots.
Despite the railroaded feeling, Lafayette said the community came together to still make Toys for Tots happen.
“It’s been a big change this year, but it will work,” he said. “… These are a good bunch of people here.”
Zurlo said another monkey wrench thrown at the event was the closing of Toys R Us, which shut its doors this summer. That’s typically where a lot of the gifts would come from.
“The community stepped forward and donated, and I can’t thank them enough for the support,” he said.
For Eric Stensland, integrated marketing manager for Dunkin’, the tractor trailer convoy had a perk that Amtrak didn’t. He said it was easier to see the line of people and cars as the caravan drove into the complex, and he loved seeing the surprise on children’s faces.
U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik and State Sen. Betty Little were in attendance of the gift-giving extravaganza. Little said she was amazed by the large amount of gifts and the number of people present.
“It’s heartwarming,” she said.
Stefanik praised Zurlo for keeping the tradition on track, as well as the partnerships between the sheriff’s offices and others. It’s an example of the community coming together for families in need, she said.
“It’s what the holiday season is about, giving to friends and neighbors,” Stefanik added.
Before moving on to the next stop, Zurlo said he was pleased with how the new convoy was going.
“Hopefully it’s the start of something special,” he said