It was 16 years ago when Ray and Celeste Shefland, along with some pilots at Nary National-Shefland Field Airport in Nary, Minn., had the first Tree of Hope toy collection.
Since then, pilots have collected thousands of toys for hospitalized children in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Those pilots hope to spread their annual holiday tradition to airports across the nation.
That’s because the Tree of Hope not only brings good tidings to sick children, it also brings friends and families together as they gather toys, volunteers say.
At the first event, pilots were invited to bring a toy and a dish to pass, and fly into Nary for some holiday cheer. A lighted Tree of Hope was placed beside the runway to greet participating pilots, adding to the holiday spirit. Due to the success of the first toy collection, other airports were encouraged to have a Tree of Hope in their FBOs and collect toys for a hospital or hospitals near them. Each year the toy drive grew until central collection points were established to make it easier for pilots and their friends to bring in their donations.
For example, earlier this month pilots flew into Faribault Municipal Airport (FBL) in Minnesota, bringing along more than 1,800 toys, says Linda Peasley, a volunteer and member of the Faribault Area Pilots Association. Not only that, many pilots donated cash so volunteers could go out and buy more presents for the ailing children.
After the pilots donate their toys, a cadre of volunteers steps forward to sort, label and bag toys for various hospitals. Another group of volunteers delivers the toys to the hospitals, where they are passed out to the children.
It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved, says Peasley, who hopes that pilots all over the country will start their own Trees of Hope at their local airports.
“Your flying club or your flying companions are always interested in having some flying fun, so collect some toys for Tree of Hope and take them to a collection point near you,” she says. “Maybe you could have a pancake breakfast for your club or group. A chili supper is great too, but the agenda for these get-togethers is toys, toys and toys. Think about it — I’m sure you will come up with an innovative way of gathering toys. Then the best part is flying them to the collection points for a round of hangar talk and refreshments.”
While all toys are appreciated, it is important to realize that many of the children are confined to their beds, so the best gifts are small puzzles, handheld electronic games, dolls, stuffed animals, board games, videos or books. Children who are more mobile enjoy inexpensive cameras, games, cars, dolls, CDs, tea sets, coloring books and puzzles. Older children like puzzles, books, makeup, music CDs and movie DVDs. Babies enjoy rattles, mobiles, stuffed toys, and cute bibs, socks or sleepers. Toys are needed for infants to children up to age 18.