Three decades ago, a service station owner/auto mechanic crawled into a bucket truck and stayed aloft for hours begging for toys he could give to local kids at risk of a giftless Christmas.
On Friday, the now-retired owner and mechanic, Tom Powell, will repeat the effort for the 31st time when the annual Toy Lift rises above the Charlottesville Fashion Square mall parking lot, hovers near U.S. 29 and beckons for drive-by donations in the shopping center lot.
The main event at the mall will begin at 7 a.m. and end at 8 p.m. Satellite Toy Lift locations have a variety of start and stop times.
“We’re still going strong,” said Powell, who is now 67, the founder of the locally-grown charity event. “We still have great community support and we’ve been able to care of all of the kids on our list. We’ve expanded over the years and grown.”
So has the list of children that the Toy Lift serves. In its early days, the organization helped as many as 1,000 children. This year, the charity has 4,300 on its list. The children’s names are provided by area school counselors.
“The guidance counselors seem to really know the kids that are in need. A lot of families wouldn’t ask on their own, and this way we can help them without them having to ask,” Powell said. “We do double-check the names with the Salvation Army and other groups to make sure we’re not doubling up on anyone.”
Through ice and snow, storm and stress, sickness and health, the Toy Lift Christmas charity has for three decades provided happy holidays to thousands of area children.
“Who can forget seeing Tom Powell over the roadway telling people he can’t come down until he’s got enough toys? It’s a fantastic sentiment. It’s about making Christmas better and it’s about doing good things for the community, for children,” said Les Sinclair, long-time local radio personality on WINA-AM and sister stations and a long-time supporter of the Toy Lift.
“Let’s face it. It’s just a great sentiment and a great story,” he said.
The brainchild of Powell and the late Gail Weakley, the event grew bigger over the years and at one point was known as the Festival of the Toy. It featured live bands, entertainment, food, NASCAR race cars, petting zoos and pony rides. It expanded into providing winter coats for children and even car seats before leaders pared it back to Christmas and toys.
There also were some bumps in the road.
In 1993, the Toy Lift was accused of holding back toys from the Salvation Army, which the Toy Lift organizers hotly contested. A police investigation later determined that the toys were delivered but misplaced.
The storm of news stories surrounding the claims proved stressful to Powell, who was hospitalized for treatment of what doctors said may have been a minor stroke.
In 1997, a blown hydraulic line on a bucket truck stranded Sinclair and former local radio personality Rick Daniels for three hours above the tarmac of the Lowe’s parking lot.
The pair had to move from one truck’s bucket into another some 30 feet above the ground.
“That was quite the experience,” Sinclair laughed. “The worst thing was that it was cold, bitter cold, and we had to climb from one truck to another. It was kind of fun.”
At the time, Daniels said the three-story bucket exchange was a memorable experience.
“I wouldn’t say I was scared. I’d say I was friggin’ terrified,” joked Daniels after he made it down. “I’m afraid of heights to begin with, so it was s true experience in terror.”
In the summer of 1998, Powell suffered a serious heart attack, but managed to make it to the Toy Lift four months later for a brief stint in the bucket. That year, a last-minute zoning complaint filed by another nonprofit organization forced the closure of a kids’ play area, a tethered hot air balloon festooned with event advertisements and other entertainment attractions.
Shortly after a brutally cold and icy 2003 Toy Lift, Powell was diagnosed with a virulent throat cancer, but was able to attend the 2004 event in the midst of aggressive treatments.
The event also has changed locations several times, from a gas station parking lot to the Albemarle Square shopping center, to the Lowe’s parking lot to its current home at Fashion Square. It’s also grown in the number of remote locations where toys may be donated.
This year, Timberwood Grill in Forest Lakes will participate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Bank of the James in 5th Street Station will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Pantops Atlantic Union Bank will go 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Blue Ridge Homebuilders in Crozet will take toys from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Ruckersville Walmart will operate 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Food Lion Plaza in Fluvanna County will host a lift from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“We want to make sure that there’s a place people can drop off toys without having to say ‘gee, I’m too far away from the mall.’ We don’t want that to happen,” Powell laughed.
A specialty of the Toy Lift is providing first bicycles to kids. This year the organizers are hoping to provide about 600 new bikes with help from Walmart, Flow Volkswagen, Colonial Auto Center, Mallory Ford and Umansky Auto Group.
“The community support has always been fantastic no matter how bad the weather. Business support has been great, too,” he said. “This is a great community. I’m proud to be a part of it.”