By CHERY SABOL
The Daily Inter Lake
Bathtubs filled with soccer balls. Hallways covered with boxes of games and puzzles, candy and dolls. Entire rooms, meticulously organized into stacks of books, wallets, electronic games and backpacks.
It's the clearing house for Toys for Tots - a project of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. It's also the pet project of John and Lou Olsen who have toiled for Toys for Tots for 20 years in the Flathead Valley.
Lou Olsen has a system for it all. Years ago, Daily Inter Lake reporter Anne Clark called her the Chief Elf of the project and the title stuck. She has a legion of other volunteer elves, but they'd better not mess with her system.
"I'm a fanatic about the whole thing," she said.
She wears a blue and white sweatshirt with the Toys for Tots logo, designed by Walt Disney. She keeps a small reserve of Christmas-themed stuffed animals in the motel-room she uses for an office, but they will eventually be distributed to children on her growing list of recipients.
They number about 600 now. By the time the gifts are assembled and given away to parents, she anticipates there will be 1,200 or so.
Imagine being able to put toys under the tree for more than 1,000 local children who wouldn't otherwise have any on Christmas morning.
"It's probably the most generous, efficient charity in the world," John Olsen said.
That's what keeps the Olsens working year after year.
At the beginning, it was pretty simple, serving about 90 children, which seemed impossible then to the Olsens. Now it's a massive project that involves an entire annex of the Blue and White Motel in Kalispell.
Motel owner Winnifred Storli turns over the building - Lou Olsen guesses it's 16 rooms - for the toy collection and assembly of gift boxes.
The gifts come from shoppers who deposit new toys at the 55 drop boxes around the valley. People also donate money that's forwarded to the Toys for Tots Foundation. It reappears in the full amount on a credit card issued to the local project.
"Every penny we receive goes to the foundation," John Olsen said.
Some gifts come from people who make them.
"This is an exciting story right here," Lou said as she walks into a room full of handmade wooden creations. There are high chairs and rocking chairs and cradles for dolls, rocking horses, blocks and toys - all donated by Bob Milner and Bob Redinger. The cradles will be outfitted with doll quilts made by a Marion woman.
The phone rings constantly with people wanting to be on the recipient list. Some want to explain the hard times that put them in the position of asking for a hand with Christmas.
John mainly wants to know is if the caller is a parent of the child in question. Well-meaning neighbors or grandparents and other relatives can't ask to have a child placed on the list. Parents-only referrals ensure that duplicate requests aren't made for the same child.
He asks for the number of children in a family, their last names, their genders and their ages. When everything is prepared, the parent will get a call with information on picking up the gifts.
The Olsens start soliciting for donations in August. By this time of year, they're working 18-hour days, Lou said.
"John and I thought we should retire last year," she said, but they decided to go for another year. Sometimes, she's been the coordinator of the project. This year, he is.
He retired as a major in the Marine Corps after 22 years. Later this month will be the 50th anniversary of the day he joined the corps. He probably won't have much time to ruminate about it.
The next few weeks will be intensely busy for the couple.
"I don't know why exactly I do it, other than the satisfaction of knowing I'm helping someone," Lou said. "Times are hard. People are getting laid off everywhere."
People everywhere are also willing to help.
The Boy Scouts, The Marine Corps League and Auxiliary, the Moose Lodge and VFW members get involved. The Olsens' daughter, Renae, comes to fill up boxes and their son, Morse, donates from San Diego.
Home-school children have organized to donate $250. A chiropractor in a Santa suit is expected this year. The motel's maintenance man, Zulu, has been a big help.
In all, probably 50 to 60 people contribute their time, Lou estimates.
With just two weeks before Christmas, their work is intensifying.
Snow disks and toboggans are due to arrive. The rocking horses arrived Thursday. More toys were purchased Friday morning at a retail store.
Lou sorts it all into the appropriate rooms. Basketballs and footballs go into a room for older boys.
"That's the hardest one for me," she said. "I don't know what older boys like."
In the room for older girls are curling irons and cosmetics. Crayons, Beanie Babies, dolls and other items are diverted to the little girls room.
The demand is greatest for gifts for children ages 6 through 8, the Olsens said.
Every child receives one "big" gift, along with smaller gifts and fillers like candy.
The two days of handing out the gift boxes include a steady stream of tears from parents and volunteers alike.
Lou said she can always use more help and more donors. For more information, call 257-4043.