By Tom Dalton
SALEM — A local food pantry that distributes Christmas toys to hundreds of needy children sent a van and a truck to a Toys for Tots storage facility in Burlington on Saturday to pick up a shipment of gifts.
The volunteers from the St. Joseph/Harvest of Hope pantry were told to return yesterday because the boxes weren't ready.
What they didn't know, until yesterday, is that the toys had been stolen.
"... This is a despicable crime against the generous people who donated these toys and against the hundreds of children in need who would have received these gifts and who now will not," said Massachusetts State Police Col. Marian McGovern.
An estimated 1,500 toys, mostly expensive electronic gifts for older children, were stolen from a locked PODS (Portable On Demand Storage) container, between 2:30 and 6 a.m. Saturday, state police said. The stolen toys were valued at about $15,000.
The PODS containers were stored outside a warehouse in a well-lighted lot, police said.
The news sent the Salem pantry, and many other charities across the region, into panic mode.
The St. Joseph pantry said it has received donations from other organizations but had enough toys only for about 100 of the 800 families on its Christmas list.
"For us, it's a huge loss," said Veann Campbell, the volunteer director of the pantry on Franklin Street.
Salem families started calling yesterday to ask when to pick up the toys, an official said.
"They're all upset," said Doreen Thomas, who oversees the toy distribution. "We're supposed to be filling 800 families. ... We only have toys for (ages) 0 to 5. We don't have toys for anyone over that age.
"We're telling participants that if they have anyone under age 5, we can help them, but, if not, we don't know what we're going to do," she said.
Toys for Tots, a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve program, told the Salem pantry it may be able to fill its order tomorrow but gave no guarantees, according to Thomas.
"Right now, we're at a standstill and there are a lot of families saying, 'What's going to happen?'"
John Boris, chairman of the St. Joseph pantry, said as soon as he heard the news he started knocking on the doors of local businesses yesterday asking for last-minute donations.
Anyone with gift cards or new, unwrapped toys can drop them off at the 13 Franklin St. pantry, Campbell said.
"I'm really upset for these poor families," Campbell said. "They depend on these agencies. I feel bad for all the people involved with Toys for Tots, not just us. It's a terrible thing to rob a charity."
Donations or checks also can be dropped off at any state police barracks.
The theft is being investigated by state and Burlington police.
Salem officials said they have their fingers crossed that, one way or another, the toys will arrive in time.
"How many days before Christmas is it?" Thomas said. "I think we need that miracle."