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At 85, great grandmother matches toys to children in need

Mickey Sprague has a contagious smile and sparkle in her eyes when she helps a parent find just the right gift for her child.

No one knows how many hours she spends planning the distribution of toys that will make nearly 400 children happy Christmas morning. But it’s not work, her time is the gift she gives to others.

And it’s not just Sprague who puts in the time.

There are hundreds of people involved, from those who donate to The Buffalo News Neediest Fund, the Marines’ Toys for Tots and other groups, to the WNY Holiday Partnership, which coordinates the holiday gift-giving for thousands of families in the region facing difficult times, to organizations like Response to Love, that get the toys to those who are in need, and students like the ones from Canisius High School who help with the distribution.

But the 85-year-old great-grandmother found her niche when she began coordinating the program at the Response to Love Center six years ago. She treats each toy as if she was going to present it to one of her three children, five grandchildren, or two great-grandchildren.

“It’s a real community effort. We say it’s the city of good neighbors, this shows what it is. The general public needs to see,” said Sister Mary Johnice, executive director of Response to Love.

Sprague starts before Thanksgiving, looking at advertisements for dolls and tea sets and mini-cars. She takes stock of what the center already has collected before it gets the large shipment in a couple days before the distribution. Sprague works with Sister Mary Catherine and Sister Mary Rose on the program at the center.

“I wanted to see what the price of the toys were. I went to Walmart last Sunday,” she said. “I don’t have my shopping done yet, but I wanted to see.”

She knows anything with a theme from the movie “Frozen” is hot this year, but they did not get any “Frozen” dolls.

“We have to just work with what we get, and people are very happy with what they get,” she said. “Sometimes we’ll get lucky and get what is the latest thing. For the others, we work with what we have.”

If a Hot Wheels set comes in with one car, and there’s another set of five cars, she will make sure an extra car goes with the first set. She will match Barbie clothes with a Barbie doll, “so when they get the Barbie doll they have a change of clothes for them.” She tapes batteries to the side of each toy that requires them.

Response to Love keeps track of the ages of the children who are registered, and sets up times for their parents to come in over two days to pick out toys. Sprague makes sure there is a good mix of toys each day, and places them on the tables by age group, making it easier for the parents to “shop.” Canisius students act as elves, stocking the toys and helping parents carry them to their cars.

“I think the part of it that’s the nicest is giving them a chance to shop for their children. Everybody likes to do that,” Sprague said.

“She’ll call the shots,” said Sister Mary Johnice. “She’ll say ‘Sister, we need this, this and this.’ So I get on the phone and make those calls to supplement what is given.”

One of the gifts for older children is a $10 gift card to McDonald’s.

“We always did $5 before,” Sprague said. “This year when I was talking to Sister, I said, ‘You know, $5 isn’t very much ... you can’t get too much with $5, not today, anyway.”

Those who know her said Sprague puts love and thought into the process, so children receive a gift, not just toys.

“I think people are chosen to be an inspiration for other people,” Sister Johnice said.

And she said the community needs to see the results of its generosity: A lower hall transformed into a winter wonderland, where many lives are touched.

“To see those parents shop, to get a hug, to get a smile, and to get a thank you,” she said. “There is no negativity here, there’s no fights here. Nobody’s upset because they wait in line.”