SEYMOUR — Seymour residents Tom and Diane Baklik, both originally from Derby, have lived in town for about 30 years. For half of those, the couple has seen up to 500 guests in their front yard one day in late November or early December each year, accompanied by mountain of almost 1,000 toys, a Santa who may just be the real deal, and representatives from a handful of local organizations.
The Yankee Clipper, Mr. Baklik’s home-based barber shop, is the official host of the annual Christmas Breakfast for Valley TEAM Toys 4 Kids, celebrating its 15th run this year at 9 a.m. Sunday, November 24, at 19 Chucta Rd.
In the event of inclement weather, the event will take place on Sunday, December 1.
The cost of admission is at least one new, unwrapped toy, though Mrs. Baklik said she and her husband appreciate when guests bring one for a boy and one for a girl.
The Bakliks donate the toys to Valley TEAM, Inc., the local nonprofit that facilitates the annual Toys 4 Kids holiday toy drive to help parents who could not otherwise afford Christmas presents for their children.
The Bakliks’ event is just one of a few toy collection methods; for example, around 140 Valley businesses set up donation boxes starting in early November.
In mid-December, volunteers will arrange donations shop-style for parents to browse, purchase with their “toy dollars” and gift to their children for the holidays.
Besides guests, the Bakliks will welcome the Magnificent Brass Band; Seymour police, who volunteer to facilitate parking; the 6th Connecticut Regiment, executives and volunteers from Valley TEAM; the Mattatuck Fife and Drum Band, new this year; a local resident who offers horse-and-carriage rides to visitors and, of course, Santa Claus, who arrives on a vintage tractor, sporting an authentic white beard and a long, maroon, velvet robe.
“It’s almost like a mini-parade,” said Mr. Baklik, seated in his old-school shop. “The whole front of the place is just loaded with people.”
The event’s monetary supporters include the Seymour Lions Club and the Blue Knights Motorcycle Club, both of which will attend. The Bakliks hosted a fundraiser earlier this month at Retro Grub and Pub in Derby to help defray costs. The rest of the tab is picked up by funds raised through ticket sales for a raffle that closes the event each year.
The morning opens with the posting of the colors by members of American Legion Emil Senger Post 10, of which Mr. Baklik is a member, and the National Anthem, which Jet Parker will sing this year.
At around 9:30 a.m., volunteer cooks take to the grills and make egg and cheese sandwiches with sausage or bacon for guests. There’s coffee, tea, hot chocolate, baked goods, juice for kids and mimosas and bloody marys for grown-ups.
Most supplies are donated, though the Bakliks do their fair share of shopping, including for candy and snacks that they arrange into 250 goodie bags for children to be handed out by Santa on his “sleigh.”
At 10:30 a.m., Santa arrives, escorted by the police and accompanied by performances. The raffle drawing takes place at 11:30 a.m., and the event usually fizzles out by noon.
Amidst the commotion is the cause behind it all: helping Valley families in need create lasting holiday memories.
Those who celebrate the holiday, especially children, know the joy of waking up to gifts under a decorated evergreen tree on Christmas morning. Of course, Christmas is not defined by presents, but the act of giving is the cornerstone of the holiday season.
In the Connecticut region known as the Valley, shorthand for the Naugatuck River Valley — encompassing Derby, Ansonia, Seymour, Oxford, Beacon Falls, Naugatuck and Shelton — approximately one in five families is low-income, according to the 2019 Valley Community Index, and Christmas presents may be at the bottom of a list that includes rent, food, childcare and transportation costs.
This may also be the case for the 36 percent of Valley households who are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of total income on housing costs, and the 15 percent who are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their total income on housing.
That’s where Valley TEAM, Inc. comes in.
The nonprofit, led by CEO David Morgan, is a Valley-based human services organization that also serves Bethany, Milford, Orange, Woodbridge and Waterbury. Besides the annual Toys 4 Kids drive, TEAM, Inc. offers early childhood programs, elderly services, home heating, basic needs, housing and income tax assistance and a diaper bank for eligible residents.
TEAM, Inc. hosted a Toys 4 Kids Kickoff Breakfast on Thursday, November 8, in the gymnasium of the former St. Joseph’s Grammar School in Shelton, now the site of the Echo Hose Ambulance Co.
The buffet-style breakfast was funded by the Valley Community Foundation and staffed by student volunteers from Emmett O’Brien Technical School.
The event officially commenced the toy collection phase, which culminates with a shopping period from December 17 to 20.
Maureen Coffey, the volunteer who oversees the toy store, said shoppers are mostly the “working poor,” including working moms with children who are on a tight budget. “It’s people looking for a bit of a leg up,” she said.
TEAM, Inc. and Toys 4 Kids volunteers make the toy store feel like a real one, treat shoppers like customers and never convey a sense of shame or inadequacy.
“This is all about community spirit,” said Mrs. Coffey, “and making sure that kids in need in the Valley have a Christmas morning.”
TEAM, Inc. accepts toys for children ages 0 through 12 years-old in all price ranges.
Last year, TEAM, Inc. received 10,110 donations and provided gifts for 1,287 Valley children in 657 families.
Seymour was the fourth most-served community, after Ansonia, Derby and Shelton, with 168 children in 88 families receiving gifts.
This year, Mrs. Coffey would like to see friends pool their money to purchase bicycles instead of donating multiple $10 toys, she said. A bicycle is a classic gift that helps today’s children get exercise and stay off their electronic devices longer.
Talalay Global in Shelton and other local businesses will conduct bicycle drives to help achieve this goal.
Seymour police officers will collect both toys and monetary donations outside of Stop and Shop from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, December 7. At the same event last year, they collected 300 toys and $800 in cash and gift cards.
For the Bakliks, contributing to these numbers is personal. When Mrs. Baklik taught English and home economics at Derby High School, she oversaw the school’s Key Club, an international service program for high school students. Students participated in outreach and worked closely with TEAM, Inc.
Each year, around the holidays, Mrs. Baklik asked Key Club members to a donate new, unwrapped toy for TEAM, Inc.’s toy drive.
She later offered the opportunity to all her students before establishing it as a schoolwide project.
Eventually, her husband, Tom, got involved, and what started with a group of students at Derby High School transformed into an annually attended event with 500-plus guests and almost 1,000 toys collected for Valley children.
“When my husband took over, it took on a life of its own,” said Mrs. Baklik. “My husband doesn’t do small.”
To that, Mr. Baklik replied, “Well, if you’re gonna do it, you might as well do it big.”
At the Kickoff Breakfast, TEAM, Inc. CEO David Morgan told Voices that with around 10,000 toys collected each year, the Bakliks’ event brings in roughly 10 percent of all donations and serves as the first major toy haul.
He’s attended the event each year for a decade, along with about 85 Toys 4 Kids volunteers.
The Bakliks said that many of their friends and other locals see the event as the official start of the holiday season. Mr. Baklik said some folks will come for breakfast, then go out to buy their Christmas trees.
A day or so after the occasion, volunteers from Connecticut Basement Systems drive to the Bakliks’ in vans, pick up all the toys and take them to TEAM Inc.’s toy store, which volunteers will create at St. Joseph’s Parish in Shelton this year.
If TEAM, Inc. is Santa Claus, volunteers are his elves. With around 280 volunteers contributing 1,627 hours of work for TEAM, Inc., based on the nonprofit’s 2018 data, not including all the organizations that volunteer at the Bakliks’ event and the local businesses that house donation boxes, the Toys 4 Kids initiative is powered by good will.
“TEAM provides oversight, but this is the community’s project,” said Jamie Peterson, TEAM, Inc.’s early childhood director, who became head of the toy drive last year.
Toys 4 Kids is much larger than just the nonprofit; it’s about Valley residents banding together, caring about their neighbors, and making sure that everyone who calls the region home has a joyful holiday season.
Those seeking further information about TEAM, Inc. Toys 4 Kids may visit teaminc.org/toys-4-kids.