story and photos by Brittany Ransom
A mountain of toys was collected on Thursday (Dec. 13) as guests filled the Movie Lounge in Fort Smith for the first ever Jingle Bell Ball. Benefitting the River Valley Toys for Tots program, the event helped round up hundreds of Christmas gifts for area children and teenagers in need.
Upon entering, guests browsed the Jingle Ball Bazaar that featured several area vendors. Booths showcased unique Christmas gifts including custom-made jewelry, as well as festive holiday attire. Individuals could also bid on a number of gift certificates, spa packages and other items in the silent auction.
For a small donation, party-goers could have their photo made with Santa and his special helpers. Ditching his usual sleigh, St. Nick, Mrs. Claus and the elves instead posed with patrons on a Harley.
In the Jingle Ball lounge, event-goers dined on fine food and drinks while enjoying the comedy of local troupe "Naturally Improvable." Local favorite "Copesetic" provided live music early in the evening, followed by the headlining band, "Boom Kinetic," who performed for the crowd later that night.
Emcee Jay James from 95.3 MAX FM kicked-off the evening by welcoming guests and telling them a about Toys for Tots and its mission.
"Just right here in the River Valley, Toys for Tots is expecting more than 27,000 toy requests," said James. "That number is way too high and that is why are here…so we can help meet that need."
Although tickets to the event were free, admission required the donation of a new, unwrapped toy. Guests brought in everything from teddy bears and baby dolls to board games and toy trucks. Many also made monetary donations to the organization to help purchase additional gifts for the program.
Toys for Tots' goal is "to deliver, through a shiny new toy at Christmas, a message of hope to needy youngsters that will motivate them to grow into responsible, productive, patriotic citizens and community leaders." Coordinated by the U.S. Maine Corps Reserve, the group begins collection in October and spends weeks hosting toy drives and gifts collections during the holiday season.
The number of toy requests has significantly increased over the last several years, with more and more families unable to afford Christmas presents for their children.
"When we started this in the River Valley six years ago, we served about 100 families," said Robert Rivera, local coordinating officer. "Last year, we helped 17,000 children and we expect that need to be up to 27,000 this year."
To help meet the ever-increasing demand, the local chapter partnered with 95.3 and other area businesses to organize the Jingle Bell Ball, as a way to raise funds and collect items for the holidays. The organization hopes to turn the ball into an annual event.
"This year has already exceeded our expectations," said Lane Davis, Toys for Tots Media Coordinator. "We have been overwhelmed by the support of our sponsors and this community and are already starting to think about plans for next year."
Toy and monetary donations for the 2012 holiday season will be accepted through Christmas . A Toys for Tots collection station will be set up at the Walmart Supercenter in Greenwood on Saturday (Dec. 15) and at the Walmart Supercenter in Van Buren on Dec. 22. Parents interested in signing up their child to receive a gift from the program may also register at the collection stations on either day or by contacting Toys for Tots at (479 522-4286.