WHITLEY COUNTY — The countdown to the holidays, with all of its magic, surprises and presents, has officially begun, and Whitley County Toys for Tots isn’t wasting a single minute.

Between now and Dec. 17, the iconic red and white boxes will be sitting in local businesses and municipal buildings waiting to be filled with the love and generosity of the Whitley County community. Toys for Tots will also be out and about among the holiday festivities, setting up a collection during Christmas Around the Courthouse in December and even posting up with the Columbia City Police Department for a “Stuff the Cruiser” event.

Come Dec. 17, local Toys for Tots director and volunteer Tiffany Careins and her husband, Matt, will do a final sweep at all the collection sites and thank those businesses for their support. The toys will then be brought to a nearby warehouse space that will temporarily serve as the Toys for Tots headquarters. The toys will be sorted by age and gender, and volunteers will begin to “shop” among the rows of toys based on the information forms filled out by the families.

In the meantime, Careins, her husband and her sister — whom Careins firmly believes is a better shopper — will take to local stores like Walmart and Walgreens, to fill in the gaps with monetary donations they receive.

“All of the money we collect stays here in our program,” Careins said. “So, if you cut me a check for $200, that goes directly into the Whitley County Toys for Tots program. Ninety-seven cents of every dollar donated goes directly back to buying toys for those kids. The other three cents is for overhead.”

The support that Toys for Tots receives from the community every year thrills Careins. Some local businesses are especially enthusiastic about the cause, such as C&A Tool in Churubusco and Advanced Assembly in Columbia City. AmVets in South Whitley, as well as several churches, are also annual supporters that bring in lots of donations to fill the warehouse.

St. James Construction in Churubusco, Careins added, never ceases to amaze them as he pulls up each year in his work van filled with thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts collected and paid for by donations its owner, Jim Millikan, accumulates from regional and local businesses he works with.

For those folks who need a few ideas about what to shop for and donate, Careins suggests remembering the “big kids” and babies in their community. While aisles with toys like Barbie dolls and actions figures may be more fun to browse, Toys for Tots collects gifts for kids up to age 18. Unfortunately, the 13-18 age demographic, as well as the newborn to 2-year-olds, are where Toys for Tots sees the biggest gap.

“Some other programs cut off at a younger age because older kids are harder to buy for,” Careins said. “But I’m a really strong believer that if you’re 18 and your 12-year-old sister gets to have Christmas, but you don’t, how does that make them feel?”

Gifts like bath kits, crafts and even remote-controlled cars, are always welcomed to make sure every child has a present under the tree at Christmas.

Books are also a popular commodity for Toys for Tots. In addition to providing toys, Careins explained, Toys for Tots has its own literacy program to encourage kids to read. Each package they send home with families usually contains age-appropriate books along with their other presents.

Aside from toys and books, though, Careins emphasized that Toys for Tots does not offer any other sort of services or aid for parents. That being said, Careins has made a point of building connections with other local agencies.

“We are 100 percent toys,” Careins said. “But as a Christmastime program, we try to work as closely as we can with all the other organizations. We only provide toys, but we try to make sure we’ve got all the information so if families need help we can at least direct them to the right place.”

Last year, according to Careins, 736 Whitley County kids received presents from the organization. She added that the number of kids has increased partly due to need, but also due to the organization’s new process that makes it easier for families to request and receive help.

The collection and giving campaign may only last a couple months, but the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from bringing Christmas joy to local families sticks with Careins all year long.

“To be able to help a family that was not going to have anything, not able to provide anything for their kids,” Careins said, “and knowing that the work we put in over a two-month period is providing those smiles on Christmas morning is life-changing.”