Tuesday, November 27, 2001

15,000 toys to deliver

Tristate woman began helping others after sister was killed by drunk driver

        Gail Conner has finished her Christmas shopping. The gifts are wrapped. Now, she's making candy jars and boxing up cookies. I forgive her, even though this sort of pre-holiday efficiency usually makes me want to shoot myself with a glue gun.

        She is a special case.

        Gail will be delivering 15,000 toys to other people's children. She will do this at her own expense, for what she calls selfish reasons.

        On Nov. 17, 1990, Gail's sister was killed by a drunk driver, and Gail wondered if the season she had always loved would become instead an anniversary of loss.

Started small

        She bought about 25 toys and wrapped them. "It was selfish, really, a way to survive the holidays without Audrey.” On Christmas Eve, the Conners — Gail and Bob, their daughter, Kimberly, and two sons, Michael and Gary — loaded up their car in West Chester and headed for Over-the-Rhine. At the FreeStore, they found people waiting for food.

        “I didn't know exactly what to do,” Gail says. “But I saw a woman with three or four kids and I said, "I don't mean to offend you, but would you like something for the children?'”

        She would. Most joyfully.

        “I remember feeling so grateful I could be in the middle of such happiness on a day I had dreaded.”

        Gail was so grateful — and selfish, of course — that she did it again the next year. The Christmas Eve trip downtown in a car became a trip downtown in a van, which became two vans, which became a truck. Now, it's two huge moving vans full of toys.

        Three years ago, Gail and Bob, who owns his own engineering firm, opened another location in a Newport parking lot. There is simply no end to their selfishness.

        Gail starts shopping in January and continues the rest of the year. She hits the toy trade shows — “by now, they allow me to buy wholesale” — and is shrewd about seasonal bargains — “after Easter is a great time for plush toy markdowns.”

Ruthless pursuit of wrap

        Everything is new. And it's not socks and underwear. It's sporting equipment, games, backpacks, tea sets, dolls. She is ruthless about pressing friends, family and neighbors into service as gift wrappers and welcomed help this year from the Elfun Society, a group of GE volunteers.

        But the money comes from the Conners.

        How much?

        She does not think it is polite to discuss the price of a gift. “Let's just say I'd rather do this than get a new car.” The car she drives has 128,000 miles on it. I have no manners at all, so I press on. Could you buy a new car for what you spend.

        “Uh, well, at least two.”

        Expensive ones? Polite silence. “We feel grateful to be able to do this,” she says. More gratitude. And she is finished talking about money.

        Instead, she talks about a 72-year-old woman caring for her drug-addicted daughter's four small children. “We really loaded her up,” Gail says gleefully. Last year, a young man took a gift for his baby, then wondered if they had any old coats for adults. “Good old Bob” said they sure did and shrugged his off.

        One year, a man told them he was just out of jail and “I couldn't go to my kids with nothing.” The next year, he came back, bringing toys for the Conners to pass along to somebody else. And although she doesn't usually accept donations, Gail took the toys.

        Knowing that he might have his own selfish reasons.
        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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