When Dave Laslow of Marysville started collecting Christmas toys for needy children in 1987, he didn't foresee that his efforts would eventually generate more than $1.59 million in donations for Union County families.
"I think what he's done over the last 27 years is phenomenal," said Karen Page, who nominated Laslow for the 2014 Jefferson Awards, sponsored by WBNS-10TV and Nationwide Insurance.
The awards were established by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Ohio Sen. Robert Taft in 1972 to honor the work of unsung heroes. Laslow was one of five central Ohio winners named at an April 3 ceremony from among 20 finalists. Winners are chosen based on the type of service and impact on the community, how much time was given to the project(s) and the volunteer's accomplishments.
Laslow is the founder of the Union County Care Train, an annual Christmas event that helps families in need. To date, his efforts have garnered more than $1.59 million for toys and food vouchers.
Laslow describes the Care Train not as "his" effort, but "their" effort, referring to the 18-person team it now involves.
"It's not just me. I'm the one who started it, but we won the award because of everything we have done as a group," Laslow said.
Laslow started collecting toys at his Burger King Restaurant in 1987. He wanted to do something nice for children in need at Christmas. The first couple years, he delivered gifts on Christmas Eve.
Now, the Care Train spends months preparing for its annual auction held one Saturday in December to raise money to buy food vouchers at Kroger. The auction is a Union County tradition that takes place at McAuliffe's Ace Hardware and is televised live on the local cable channel.
"We want to make it fresh and exciting. We are all amateurs. We get up there and have a good time," Laslow said.
The Care Train team collects auction items, toys and monetary donations throughout the year.
Page said Laslow's influence is evident every Christmas season.
"I think he makes such an impact on our community during the holidays. It takes a lot of time away from his work," she said. "It makes you feel good when you help him."
In 2013, the Care Train raised $157,600. Toys were donated to 899 children, and food cards were given to 517 families and 380 seniors.
"We have a good reputation. I think that's one of the reasons people believe in us," Laslow said. "All the money we get, we give out. It's trust. We feel very honored that when someone gives us a check, that money's going to help families."
Page, who serves as board treasurer, said she has known Laslow for 25 years and has been helping with the Care Train for 15 of those. But she still gets nervous every year after the auction, which generates $70,000 to $80,000 plus up to $30,000 in advance donations.
"Every year we have the auction on Saturday, and Monday we have to sit down and figure how much we're going to spend on food vouchers," Page said.
Writing such large checks while money is still coming in is nerve-racking, but she said Laslow is a reassuring presence.
"I'm always afraid I'm going to go to jail for writing a bad check," Page said with a laugh. "He always pats me on the head and says, 'It's all right. It's going to work out.' "
Page said Laslow's work pulls the community together, though most people don't know how much he puts into it.
"I think people don't realize how much time it takes away from his job. He owns four Burger Kings and two Donatos. It has to make his day twice as long," Page said. "Coordinating volunteers is like herding cats. I'm sure his business has had to suffer some over the years."
Laslow said the group is looking for the next generation to take over.
"We want other people to step up," Laslow said. "There's opportunity for other people to do that. We want this to continue long after I'm gone."
Laslow said receiving the Jefferson Award was a shock.
"It's always nice to be recognized. But it wasn't something that was expected," he said. "I felt so good for Union County."
"He doesn't really want the recognition. He doesn't do it for that. You don't see his name very many places. It's not called 'The Dave Laslow Care Train.' It's the Union County Care Train," Page said. "I think he does it right. He deserves it."