Toy Fund’s spirit of giving marks 85th year 

  • Joe’s Cafe in Northampton gets into the holiday spirit with a decorated tree and specialized ornaments that raise funds for the Gazette's annual Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Many students, including those at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Florence shown here, find ways to donate to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2017 6:36:40 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Recalling the wonderful holidays they had growing up on Ryan Road in Florence, and how there were always many presents under the Christmas tree, three sisters now make an annual donation in memory of their late parents to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.

“It’s extremely meaningful,” Nancy Wilson said of giving to the Toy Fund with her siblings, Cynthia Custeau and Carrie Kuscza. “We were always very blessed as children to receive a lot of toys. We never did without.”

The sisters began donating in 2008, the first Christmas they spent without their mother, Dorothy Custeau. Their father, Gerard Custeau, died Dec. 28, 2011, and their annual contributions are now made in memory of both parents.

Wilson, who lives in Whately, said she understands that even for families with two working parents, many children might not have a good holiday because of their financial circumstances.

“We always think of those families and their children,” Wilson said, adding that she also gives to the YMCA to support more children being able to participate in summer camps. “Even now it’s more difficult for many families to provide for their children.”

In its 85th year, The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund was created during the Great Depression by Sidney F. Smith, the Gazette’s business manager at the time. Smith was a wallpaper hanger who came to Northampton from Milton in 1929 and stayed here for the rest of his life. He was a World War I veteran who served as a cook overseas and became an active civic and business leader in Northampton. He was known for his cheery demeanor and generosity and died in 1973 at age 84.

The Toy Fund provides certificates redeemable at participating local retailers to eligible families who can use them to buy holiday gifts at participating stores through Dec. 31, 2017.

Today, the fund distributes vouchers worth $40 to families for each child from age 1 to 14. Eligible families must live in any Hampshire County community except Ware, or in the southern Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Shutesbury and Leverett.

Unlike today’s fund, in which vouchers are provided to needy families to buy presents at participating local stores, the donations in 1933 were used to collect and repair old toys. These gifts were wrapped and distributed to hundreds of children throughout the area. Candy and oranges were also part of the gift-giving then, according to newspaper reports at the time.

‘A way of remembering’

Similar to the Custeau children, Leah Glasheen gives to the Toy Fund in memory of her grandparents, Hazel and Radie Bunn. She recalls the gatherings at their home on Eames Avenue in Amherst, especially around Christmas, with her favorite the year her grandmother made beautiful flannel nightgowns for all the women in the family.

“For Radie and Hazel, post-war Amherst was a new beginning,” Glasheen said, from Maryland where she lives. “The Toy Fund is a way of remembering their generous family spirit in a place they thrived.”

While many donors honor deceased family members and loved ones, others write other explanations for their contributions in notes to the Toy Fund

“Sending peace and love to all those in need,” one reads. Another comments “in honor of our first grandchild.”

Some businesses do annual collections and fundraisers, such as Joe’s Cafe in Northampton, which made a $572 donation last year from its annual sale of ornaments, and the Florence Casket Co., whose employees gave $1,630.

There are also donations from others, like the children at Ann T. Dunphy School in Willamsburg who gave $138.99 last year as “Johanna Korpita’s Kids” in the teacher’s 31st and final year at the school “to help other children enjoy the holidays like we do.”

The Toy Fund is supported through a partnership with Berkshire Children & Families at 220 Russell St., Suite 200 in Hadley, MA 01035, which verifies families’ eligibility.

The agency recently began collecting applications, with families sending in forms, or dropping them off, by Monday.

Marylou Spaulding, site coordinator for the Hadley office, said the process of getting applications started earlier this year. “They’re coming in pretty good,” Spaulding said.

Many of the people, Spaulding said, are on MassHealth and receiving fuel assistance, and have limited income to purchase gifts for their children.

The Toy Fund distributed $56,925 through more than 1,400 vouchers in 2016.

Michael Rifanburg, publisher of the Pioneer Valley newspapers, which includes the Gazette and the Greenfield Recorder, said there is evidence of significant demand in the community from families who want to brighten their children’s holidays.

The Toy Fund, he said, reflects the importance of how part of a community newspaper’s mission is to give back to the community.

“The Toy Fund fills a growing need in communities we serve,” Rifanburg said. “We could not provide this in Hampshire County without generous donors, retail partners and agencies that help us identify those in need.”

All overhead is absorbed by the Gazette so that all money donated goes to the vouchers. This includes the volunteers who work through the year on various aspects of the effort, from contacting families in need to printing the vouchers.

There are also some donors who recall when they were children and having the vouchers made their holidays better.

“What touches me the most is the donor today who once benefited from the Toy Fund as a child,” Rifanburg said.

The following stores are participating this year: A2Z Science and Learning Store, 57 King St., Northampton; Deals & Steals, 1 Pearl St., Northampton; J.C. Penney, 341 Russell St., Hadley (store only); The Toy Box, 201 N. Pleasant St., Amherst; Target, 367 Russell St., Hadley (store only); Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, 227 Russell St., Hadley; Odyssey Bookshop, 9 College St., Village Commons, South Hadley; Wilson’s Department Store, 258 Main St., Greenfield; World Eye Bookshop/Magical Child, 134 Main St., Greenfield.

Donations to the Toy Fund may be dropped off at or mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, P.O. Box 299, Northampton, MA, 01061, or made through Gazettenet at www.gazettenet.com.

Checks should be made payable to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.


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