There’s nothing quite like the look on a child’s face when they open a toy on Christmas. The pure joy and excitement pouring out of them as they rip through the wrapping paper is truly infectious. And thanks to MUST Ministries and volunteers like Rion Flynn, there will be a lot more kids in Georgia who will get to experience that joy this holiday season.
Flynn is an Atlanta-area schoolteacher turned stay-at-home mom. When the youngest of her three children started kindergarten, she wanted to find a new way to invest her time. So she started volunteering on a weekly basis with a local food pantry run by MUST Ministries, a Marietta-based organization that has been serving Georgia families for nearly 50 years. In addition to their food services, MUST also runs homeless shelters, thrift stores, and a seasonal Toy Shop.
When Flynn’s oldest child was ten, she and a group of her mom friends signed up with their kids to volunteer at the Toy Shop. The group found the experience so rewarding, they decided to make it an annual tradition.
“The majority of the year they’re (MUST) focused on what their clients need, like food and clothing and housing,” explained Flynn. “But the Toy Shop kind of shifts that just a little bit and you get to focus on what they want. All parents want to be able to provide new, fun toys for their kids at Christmas. And so they shift from the basic needs to the fun Christmas experience that every family deserves to experience at this time of year.”
Toy Shop staffers collect new and unwrapped gifts for kids ages 0-18 years old. Then volunteers, like Flynn’s family and friends, come in to unload, sort, and set up the toys in an easy-to-navigate storefront.
Flynn said even though her three kids are now teenagers, they still look forward to the event each year. “It’s a great opportunity for them—especially at this time of year—to take the focus off themselves, and to put the focus on others and to give and serve children their own age.”
The Toy Shop has 45 volunteer spots across three shifts during the month of December. Slots that were tough to fill this year due to COVID-19 said Kaye Cagle, the MUST Ministries VP of Marketing and Public Relations. To keep the volunteers who did show up safe and healthy, MUST required temperature checks, face masks, and hand sanitizer. Customers waited in their cars until it was their turn shop and were asked not to touch toys as they browsed to reduce potential exposure to the virus. But despite all of the challenges of 2020, Cagle said MUST still expects to provide toys for about 4,500 Georgia kids this Christmas.
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Wrapping a gift can be nerve wracking.
When families enter the Toy Shop, they are paired with a volunteer that helps them go through the shop and pick out age-appropriate toys for their family. Often, it’s the younger volunteers who get this one-on-one time with the community members they are serving.
“My middle daughter is in Spanish VI this year and she got to put her Spanish to use,” Flynn shared. “Every mom that came in that wasn’t an English speaker, they gave to her! So she got to use that a lot.”
But beyond polishing their foreign language skills, Flynn said the MUST Toy Shop also provides her kids an important perspective on life.
“To me there’s a big difference between joy and happiness. And I think happiness is based on circumstances, and joy is something you can possess despite circumstances,” said Flynn. “Despite when things are going bad, whenever the economy tanks, when you have a death in the family, or any kind of tragedy or bad circumstances come your way, you’re not going to be happy during those times, but you can still experience and feel joy.”