• Barre eighth-grader makes sure children have toys
    By Stefan Hard
     | December 04,2012

    Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Autumn Wheeler, 13, of Barre, poses Monday at her school, Barre City Elementary and Middle School, with some of the new and used toys donated by students at the school in a Toy Joy collection drive she organized to provide Christmas gifts for kids in need. Her efforts helped her win a $1,000 Kohl's Cares regional college scholarship.

    BARRE — For Autumn Wheeler, collecting donated toys around Christmastime for kids who need them is a family tradition.

    Her mom, Rose Wheeler-Stillson, and her late brother, Zachary, who died at age 26 from cancer, had been organizing an annual Toy Joy campaign in central Vermont since the time she was in diapers.

    “It's just a natural thing in my family, but I'd do it anyway” said Autumn, now 13 and nearly halfway through eighth grade, her last year at Barre City Elementary and Middle School.

    On Monday, she collected a huge bag full of new and used toys brought in by fellow students. Autumn made a presentation a few days earlier to her peers about the Toy Joy program, and they responded with generosity.

    “We did a collection earlier, and not much came in,” said Autumn, “so I gave a presentation to explain about the program, and we got a lot more this time.”

    And now she is collecting something of her own for her toy drive efforts: a $1,000 award from Kohl's Cares Scholarship Program as one of a dozen regional winners.

    “Since 2004, Autumn has volunteered to help collect, clean and distribute toys for Toy Joy, a program that collects and distributes gently used toys to children,” read the announcement of her award on the Kohl's Cares website.

    Autumn is thrilled, and her mom is proud.

    “Our family has been doing this for well over 20 years,” said Wheeler-Stillson on Monday. “Autumn has really taken up the cause after my son Zachary died in 2009. So I decided on a whim to enter her in this Kohl's Care scholarship. And she won!”

    Wheeler-Stillson and her daughter collect donations from schools all over central Vermont, and from businesses, churches and libraries, and amass the toys for children ages infant to 15 at Bethany Church in Montpelier. On Dec. 15, parents can come into Bethany Church on Main Street and pick out one new toy and browse gently used toys for Christmas gifts for their children, all for free.

    Wheeler-Stillson said the event typically serves about 800 to 1,200 children each year, but Wheeler-Stillson is concerned that the donations so far this year are not keeping up with the program's demands.

    The drop-off locations for the Toy Joy program are: all schools in Northfield, Berlin, Williamstown, Middlesex, Calais, East Montpelier and Barre City; in Berlin at First in Fitness, Midstate Dodge/Hyundai and Berlin Bible Baptist Church; in East Montpelier at Washington Electric Cooperative; in Montpelier at National Life Group, Trinity United Methodist Church, Bethany Church and Kellogg-Hubbard Library; and in Barre at Barre Congregational Church and Faith Community Church.

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