Dave Laslow stood in the middle of a warehouse Dec. 16 and watched as a dream 26 years in the making unfolded.
“I never envisioned the level we’re at right now,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s so, so good.”
What is “so good” is the annual Christmas event in Union County called the Care Train.
Laslow started collecting toys in a box set up in the corner of his Burger King restaurant in 1987. He wanted to do something nice for children in need at Christmas, he said.
“The first couple of years I remember delivering gifts on Christmas Eve,” said Laslow.
Now the process is much more sophisticated. The Care Train team is made up of 18 people with an executive director to spearhead the efforts. The board collects items for the annual Care Train auction, toys for families, and monetary donations throughout the year. On Dec. 8, the Care Train’s annual auction brought in $152,000.
“We raised $150,000 and we wrote a check to Kroger for $131,000 (for gift cards),” said Laslow.
On Dec. 16, families came to Dutch Mill Greenhouse to pick up the gifts and cards.
Laslow said he was delighted to watch what happened when the gift cards were opened by the people he is trying to help.
“We just had a story this morning where a lady was crying; she got a $150 gift card and she didn’t know what to do. She said she didn’t know what to do with that much money,” said Laslow. “Those are the ones you remember, and those are endless after doing it for 26 years.”
The process starts early in the fall, when families in need fill out an application that is submitted to Union County Job and Family Services, which determines applicants’ eligibility. Then the application goes to the Care Train organization, where adoptees are organized to help supply gifts for those families.
Now, Laslow hopes to use the Care Train to pursue another avenue to help those in need.
Care Train is teaming up with another group to supply prom dresses to girls who otherwise could not buy them.
“If we can make a 17- or 18-year-old girl feel special, that's something we want to do,” said Laslow. “We’ll be discreet just like we are in everything else. And if we can make a woman's life better, we’re going to do it.”
Jim Cesa, Union County Care Train Distribution chairman, said the spirit of giving is great in Union County. He sees the desire firsthand when volunteers show up on distribution day to help get toys and gift cards to the right people.
"There are all these people that want to help distribute and they just show up,” he said, “because they have that feeling of they want to give back to the community. They’re here every year – and every year I get more volunteers here to help us out. Volunteerism is strong in this community.
“One of the things we've done is make a difference in people’s lives. I think what’s important to me is that at this time of year, that we’re able to help,” said Cesa.
Laslow has heard and seen a lot on the Care Train over the years, but the stories he likes the most are of people paying it forward, he said.
“When they came here years ago to be a recipient and they come here now to help, those are the good stories,” he said. “They’re back on their feet. We were there for them and they want to be here for others now.”