ELYRIA — A cold and snowy December in 1994 is when Lu Phillips, a single mother of three children struggling to make ends meet, first heard about the Not-Forgotten Box.
The toy drive started by The Chronicle-Telegram in 1958, in partnership with the Salvation Army was in full swing, and pretty much synonymous with the holiday season in Elyria. Yet, like most community charity programs, if you don’t need it, you likely didn’t know it exists.
Phillips, now 53, remembers she was already prepping her three children for Santa’s absence in their home on Christmas morning and was crying herself to sleep because her children were too excited about the possibility of presents under a Christmas tree her ex-husband brought unannounced to their home on Third Street in Elyria.
“We had this tree, but I knew there would be no presents,” Phillips said, the thought of that rock-bottom time for her family still bringing tears to her eyes. “I had shut-off notices for both my gas and my electric and even though someone gave me $100 to buy Christmas presents, I felt I had to keep our utilities on first.”
Placing her pride to the side, Phillips said she contacted the Salvation Army. Come Christmas morning, she watched her children squeal with delight — Santa actually came, despite their mother insisting he wouldn’t.
“I got a red-headed Cabbage Patch Kid, my first baby doll,” said Amber Phillips, now 26, and living in North Olmsted.
“I got this xylophone, and I beat that thing every day until all the keys fell off, but one,” said John Phillips, now 26, of Grafton.
Jeromy Gibson, who a few short years later died at the age of 17 in a car accident, got two games — a combo pack containing Ants in the Pants and Don’t Break the Ice.
“I can’t even begin to describe how I felt when I saw their smiles,” Phillips said.
As the holiday season inches closer and closer, those who have helped or plan to help the annual toy drive may wonder why such a program continues to be needed year after year. Is it really necessary to provide something as basic as a toy to a less-fortunate child?
Phillips’ story is the answer.
This year, marks 55 years that The Chronicle-Telegram has solicited gifts for the Not-Forgotten Box in partnership with the local Salvation Army. It began with one goal — to see that Elyria children, regardless of their parent’s ability to provide, know that they are not forgotten.
In that regard, not much has changed.
But the need certainly has grown.
Over the course of three separate sign-up sessions for the agency’s Christmas assistance program, Major Robert Sears of the Elyria Salvation Army said more than 100 families have signed up for help, bringing the total of children looking for a Christmas miracle to more than 1,200.
It is roughly an 8- to 10-percent increase over what the program did last year.
“People keep saying the economy is improving, but we don’t see it on our end,” Sears said. “Our food-assistance program — hot meals and grocery bags are up 5 percent — and people walking through the door in need of help is up. We haven’t seen an increase in donations. We only see an increase in people needing help.”
Many of the families have used the program for years and are what are generally described as the working poor — families where one or more adults in the household work jobs paying minimum wage and are still struggling to sustain their homes.
Phillips said she used the program for several years while she got back on her feet. During that time, she finished college and now is a research analyst at Stark State College in North Canton.
As soon as she was able, the receiver became the giver and on Saturday, she and her children were the first ones to place toys in the red collection box.
“We’ll be back,” John Phillips said. “We can never just give one thing.”
Amber Phillips said she learned humility and how to appreciate the little things from watching her mother.
Lu Phillips wore duct-taped shoes and drove an old Chevy station wagon to delivery food baskets to people she thought were worse off than her family. Her mother would often use some of their food stamp benefits to make cookies for the elderly in the neighborhood for the holidays.
“You just give because giving is the gift,” Lu Phillips said.
Giving first became a way of reciprocating what was received.
It didn’t matter if it was a small toy from the dollar store. Lu Phillips said she wanted her children to see her helping their community.
When Jeromy died, giving was almost cathartic for the family. Finding a tag on an angel tree bearing his name and shopping with her eldest child in mind helped heal the hurt Phillips said she felt when she lost him so early.
Had he lived, he would have been 33 today.
“He was such an awesome child,” she said. “He got a pair of new gloves from the Not-Forgotten Box one year and tried to give them away to a homeless man sleeping in the park. He was that kind of kid.”
Phillips said giving became easy once she set her mind to it.
She once went to the Salvation Army to donate a refrigerator to the agency and before she could get to the door, she ran into a family in need of the very same appliance.
A second time, she came armed with Not-Forgotten Box toys for two boys and one girl and saw a woman crying in the parking lot. She missed the deadline to sign up and seated in her car were two young boys and a little girl.
“I handed her everything I had in the car and told her not to move from that spot,” Phillips said. “I went right to FirstMerit bank and got money for her. I told her, ‘Go buy your kids a Christmas.’ She was bawling tears, but what she didn’t know is I knew exactly how she felt. I’ve been there. Now, it’s not Christmas for us unless we go shopping with someone else in mind.”
HOW TO HELP
Collections for the 55th annual Not-Forgotten Box toy drive start Monday.
Toys and monetary donations will be accepted 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until Dec. 13 at The Chronicle-Telegram, 225 East Ave. Saturday drop-off days will be announced later.
New unwrapped toys and gifts will be accepted for boys and girls ages infant to 14.
The greatest need is for boys and girls ages 12, 13 and 14 years old. Toy options include mp3 players, cologne sets, nail polish kits, make-up sets, footballs and basketballs, among other items.