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Tommy Claus – Lander Tradition Brings Joy and Hope to More Families Each Year

Mike Rapay, director of Lander Student Activities & Engagement, looks on as sophomore Madison Marriott becomes the first student to offer a toy for the 2017 Tommy Claus toy drive. The annual drive, in place since 2004, benefits hundreds of underprivileged children in Greenwood, Laurens, Abbeville and McCormick counties each Christmas holiday season.

The boxes are out - with hopes that lots of St. Nicholas toys soon will be there.

During the next several weeks, Lander University students will take time from their academic studies to take part in the 14th annual "Tommy Claus," a

university-wide Christmas toy drive to benefit underprivileged families and children in nearby communities.

Led by Lander Physical Plant employee Tommy Tumblin, the effort began right after Halloween with a scattering of toy drop boxes across campus.

As in previous years, Tumblin says the challenge is to come through for what seems to be a growing need.

"The parents of the kids have been calling me since July asking if we're going to have Tommy Claus this year," said Tumblin, who began the toy drive out of his garage 13 years ago. "And I'm counting on the Lander students to help make a difference for them because otherwise these kids won't have Christmas."

Chimney-shaped boxes, originally decorated in 2004 by students in the Lander Art Alliance, and new ones decorated in red and white, give Tommy Claus an extra push by urging all who pass by to remember the spirit of giving by contributing a toy.

One incentive for this year's drive is coming from Tommy himself: he is offering $100 of his own money to any Lander student organization that collects the most toys.

But even without this incentive, if 2016's toy drive is any indication, Tommy Claus could be in for an outstanding year.

"Christmas 2016 was the best year we've had so far," Tumblin said. "We helped 240 families, more than ever before, and had 3,000-4,000 toys donated by groups all over Greenwood."

One member of that group is Joel Manley, owner of Joel's Floor Covering, which is serving as the Greenwood collection site and warehouse for all donated toys.

"We've supported Tommy Claus ever since Tommy approached me about 10 years ago," Manley said. "And I personally think it's become one of the best holiday staples in Greenwood."

That staple began in 2004 when Tumblin kept seeing "a lot of people who didn't have much," and wondered what he could do to help them.

"And a light just sort of went off in my head," he said. "Mom suggested the name Tommy Claus, and from there my wife and the whole family got involved."

In its first year, Tommy Claus reached 10-20 children.

By 2008, the number had grown to 150 children - to the point where Tumblin could no longer store the toys at home.

Two years later, Tommy Claus received its first monetary donation of $40.

"Now we have at least 20 sources that offer us monetary assistance," said Tumblin's sister Jenny, who handles most of the effort's logistics and organization. "I did not have any idea that Tommy Claus would be as big as it now."

In the last 13 years, the program has been supported by state Senator Floyd Nicholson, D-District 10, and has attracted patrons as far away as Travelers Rest.

The effort now extends beyond Greenwood into Laurens, Abbeville, and McCormick counties because, as Jenny Tumblin explained, there are so many parents who need to know that "when their children wake on Christmas morning there will be something for them under the tree."

"Tommy Claus wants to make sure that every child in need has the absolute best Christmas possible," she said.

Lander student Madison Marriott intends to do her part to help make that possible.

"I belong to Zeta Tau Alpha sorority and the Student Government Association, and we're encouraging everyone to pick up a few extra things on Black Friday over Thanksgiving and bring them back to Lander for Tommy Claus," Marriott said. "There are people who need these things much more than we do, and the reward is for us to take this drive to the next level."

If that happens, Tommy Claus could expand even further in the years to come - a blessing which Tommy Tumblin said he would be glad to see.

"It's the Lander students that make the difference each year in helping these children's dreams come true," he said. "And it would be hard to do this without their involvement and spirit."