BROOKSVILLE - Hundreds of Hernando County families lined up outside Central High School's cafeteria Saturday for the annual Hernando County Toys for Tots gift distribution.
Commandant Marion Kelley of the Marine Corps League Detachment 708, event co-coordinator, said the holiday drive collected enough toys and funds to provide holiday gifts for 2,027 Hernando children in 978 families.
Kelley said, however, the gift count should have been higher. Last week, Kelley said, someone posing as a Toys for Tots representative showed up at Glen Lakes to collect the holiday gifts, and stole 93 toys and a bicycle.
"It's the biggest downfall we've had," Kelley said, adding Toys for Tots volunteers wear name badges and shirts of different colors each year to distinguish themselves. Kelley said toy donations were down from last year, when about 100 more families received gifts for their children.
Both Kelley and co-coordinator Ellen Ward said Toys for Tots had a successful golf tournament and fund-raiser at Texas Roadhouse restaurant.
"Without that, it would have been abysmal," Kelley said, adding Publix, Walmart, U-Haul, Arby's and Pepsi were major supporters of the event.
"You have some good people ... businesses that actively participate and give back to Hernando County," Kelley said.
Distribution day is run like something of a military operation, with orderly check-in lines, and Central High cadets dressed as elves to help parents select gifts and stocking-stuffers, negotiate check-out and load up cars.
"The kids do this; we just watch them," said Master Chief Bruce Kennedy. "They're phenomenal."
Sophomores Richie Russell and Alexis Gerondidakis helped Amie Signorille-Sauro shop for her three children, ages 12, 5 and 3.
The students guided Signorille-Sauro through piles of toys and books, sorted by age, and asked what she thought her children would like.
"We don't have cable, so we do a lot of music and games," Signorille-Sauro said. "They don't need to see all that fabulous stuff on TV."
Later, Signorille-Sauro explained she and her husband are working hard to provide the "necessities of life" for their family. They share a vehicle, and Signorille-Sauro drives an hour each way to work after driving her three children to three schools.
"Unfortunately we do not have a lot money to provide our children with good this year," Signorille-Sauro said. "It's an amazing blessing to do something like this."