FLORIDA KEYS — The Florida Keys Toys for Tots program is gearing up to make sure that each local child in need receives a gift this Christmas despite the coronavirus pandemic taking a toll on its annual poker run, the event that collects the most donations. A smaller, socially distanced run is planned.

“It’s a tradition that we really wanted to continue,” said retired U.S. Marine Ken Keidel. “We understand the CDC guidelines and we will abide by them. We are trying to continue the Marine Corps’ pledge to enjoy this holiday season. We’ll get it done safely, and everyone will have a good time.”

The poker run will be limited to 50 motorcycles and is geared more toward locals, according to longtime Toys for Tots volunteer Kim Bouchard.

She’s thankful the downsized event will still take place, even though the poker run typically draws a large crowd from neighboring Miami-Dade and Broward counties who contribute heftily.

“We weren’t able to make as big a commitment this year to other organizations since we didn’t do the big poker run. We usually collect more funds and toys that day than the two months of fundraising,” Bouchard said of the run. “If it wasn’t for Ken Keidel who put this year’s poker run together, this probably wouldn’t happen. We’re lucky to have him.”

The Florida Keys Fun Run, a Toys for Tots initiative, will travel south to north this year beginning at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 12 at The Florida Boy Bar & Grill, mile marker 68.5 in Layton, where poker players will draw two cards.

At 11 a.m., the police will escort participants to the Blue Marlin Jewelry Store at mile marker 81.5 in Islamorada. Players will draw two more cards.

At 1 p.m., players will ride to the OceanView Inn and Sports Pub, mile marker 84.5 in Islamorada, to draw a final card, followed by an award presentation and a 50/50 drawing and raffles.

The O.V. serves as an unofficial office for retired U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Louis “Gunny” Slagle, who has been coordinating the Florida Keys Toys for Tots chapter since 2005.

“I’m getting ready to move into my office at the O.V. for a week to work on receiving and distribution operations. This is a big operation, but it’s something I believe in,” Slagle said of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, which has been supporting the charity since 1947.

“Usually by now, I have pallets of toys coming in, but with the pandemic, I’m just getting ready to buy $9,000 in toys. Last year, we spent $90,000 on toys in Monroe County alone. We gave every child in middle school grades down in all 13 schools a toy.”

This year, Toys for Toys is strictly working with the families who have registered online.

The Islamorada Moose Lodge is collecting bicycles to distribute through the charity. Mariners Hospital has previously donated dozens of bikes.

“These are things that we can’t buy,” Slagle said of the bikes. “The foundation set a limit of $30 per toy, so we’re bound to that. We are restricted. Last year, through cash donations, we were able to spend $4,000 in new bikes. For any cash donation that we get, $.97 of every dollar goes toward buying toys. The other 3 cents are for our boxes, paper and overnight fees to mail in the checks.”

The coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on families throughout the Keys.

“We are almost up to 200 registered families at this point,” Bouchard said last week. “We are a little higher this year in terms of registration and the majority of the families are in the Lower Keys. I’d say about 75%.”

Toys for Tots collects and distributes toys Keys-wide to fulfill families’ wishes.

Toy collection boxes have been distributed in businesses from the Ocean Reef Club in north Key Largo to Key West. These are the same businesses who collected at least $65,000 in donations last year, the bulk of efforts, according to Bouchard.

Toys will be collected from the boxes on Thursday, Dec. 10.

Toys and bikes will be brought to Island Community Church in Islamorada, where they are sorted into categories and assigned to families by volunteers. The local fire departments, with help from Santa, then distribute the toys.

“We work closely with the Navy yard, the U.S. Coast Guard and the community,” Slagle said. “We get a lot of support from the fire departments. I am looking for a few more Marines to dress in blues and partake in the motorcycle ride and maybe help sort and distribute. As long as we have people donating toys, I’m going to hand them out.

“The community has been very supportive, and even as bad as things are, I’ve already deposited $11,200 and there are a few more checks coming in. Everyone is stepping up.”

For more information, visit floridakeys.toysfortots.org or find the Florida Keys Toys for Tots on Facebook.com.

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