Jim Lamb, the coordinator at Sarasota County’s Toys for Tots, has a simple objective: to make sure every child has toys at Christmastime.
“I know what it is to go without Christmas,” Lamb said.
Turned away at age 12 from his home in Homestead, in Miami-Dade County, it was only through the help of others that Lamb came to be where he is today.
When Lamb stepped into the coordinator role in 2006, Toys for Tots only provided about 8,000 toys annually. Now that number has reached about 28,000.
“One person can’t make it all happen,” he said. “What we started with and what we've ended up with is because of the county, the merchants in the county and the volunteers we have.”
As he nears the end of his 22-year career at the nonprofit, he isn’t worried for the organization's future. He said that at 80 years old, he knows it's time for him to move on.
“New blood always helps put together different things, just like when I took over, I made a lot of changes,” Lamb said.
“He has put together a very good organization from the top down, because even though you don't think of it this way, there's many facets to this,” said volunteer Liz Watson, citing the different challenges including accounting, technology, warehouse management, ordering items and managing donation boxes.
20+ years giving back
Toys for Tots fills a need that is often neglected amid other essential needs, Lamb said.
“There's a lot of people out there working their butts off; they just don't have the money to get toys. It’s either toys, or food.”
Part of Lamb’s role involves coordinating the more than 105 donation boxes placed across Sarasota County from October until December, which must be emptied from once a day to every two weeks so that the toys can be transported to the warehouse space at Sarasota Square Mall.
The result is four to five toys, with smaller stocking stuffers, that can be provided to each child, in addition to bicycles, of which 235 were distributed last year. Despite the “tots” in the organization’s name, recipients can be up to 17 years old.
Lamb said his life experiences demonstrate the desperation with which others may need these services.
“On the way, if there hadn't been people helping me, I'd probably be in jail or dead by now,” he said.
After Lamb left his home, he slept in a tent, delivering newspapers by bicycle in the mornings, attending school afterwards, and then stocking shelves at a local supermarket later in the day. He eventually found hope after a former circus performer and co-worker at the supermarket offered him a residence in a small, backyard circus trailer.
Lamb lived there until he was 17 years old — old enough to join the Air Force, where he performed three tours of duty, serving in Vietnam and retiring as a master sergeant in 1981.
“I miss the service in a lot of ways, because there is a comradeship you don't find very often in civilian life,” Lamb said.
He didn't stray too far from the military by aligning himself with Toys for Tots. The organization is operated nationally by the United States Marine Corps.
Moving to Ruskin after his service, he worked in various capacities, including for the country’s largest tomato packing house and as superintendent of the Islandside Golf Club in Longboat Key, but he eventually received word of distribution struggles at Toys for Tots.
At the time, the organization was based in Bradenton and had no branch to serve Sarasota specifically. Lamb joined in a support capacity, but after a few years worked his way up to coordinator.
He attributes the nonprofit's growth to “amazing” volunteers and several other organizations in the community that have provided assistance. Among the organizations that have pitched in to help are the Sarasota Branches of Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Elks Club, and The American Legion, and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Lamb said often, the help comes from outside the city’s borders. St. Jude Catholic Church in Venice, The American Legion in North Port, and the Elks Club in Venice have helped with distribution south of the city.
For about 20 years, Lamb has worked alongside volunteer Liz Watson, who once held a managerial position but has stepped back to focus on bicycle distribution.
“It’s amazing how easily he can suck you in,” she said.
A former Marine, Steven Rose, joined two years ago. Watson said he has been instrumental in securing additional bikes, as well as in securing donations of items that can be raffled off for more funds.
Rose works with Walmart on Cattlemen Road to acquire donations of bikes with minor defects. Then he repairs them himself, based on what he learned growing up in Willliamsburg, Kentucky.
“The only bike I ever had when I was a kid was a garbage bike,” he said. “You’d go walk around the neighborhood when you were a kid and find parts out of the garbage, and make you a bike. That was how I got my first bike."
Rose said sometimes when parents receive the bikes they will kneel on the ground and begin crying.
Because Toys for Tots requires items to be perfect condition, bikes with more substantial issues are donated to Vehicles for Vets, a program Lamb set up that provides vehicles to needy veterans through Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3233.
Watson said Lamb has also been responsible for helping toys get to many recipients, including to blind children, children in hospice care, victims of Hurricane Ian in the south, and, during a time of surplus, children in the emergency room.
After retirement, Lamb, who is 80, looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Margaret Lamb. He said doing so is currently difficult due to the 50 to 70 phone calls he answers each day, along with the same number of emails.
“She says, ‘I can’t get in two words, because you’re on the phone or on the computer,” he said.
“I don’t think you’ve seen the last thing,” Watson said. “He can’t let go.”
Staff search for a new warehouse
Despite the growing community support, one concern remains for staff of Toys for Tots.
Previously a warehouse facility had been provided by Gary Kompothecras, a wealthy Sarasota chiropractor, but about two years ago the situation changed, Watson said.
Although the organization currently utilizes two unused store spaces at Sarasota Square Mall, Watson said there is the looming possibility that the mall could choose to use them once again, in which case Toys for Tots would have nine months to vacate the spaces.
“We’re in limbo,” she said. “We’re not without a warehouse, but we’re looming on the brink.”
She said the organization is searching the community for any other site that is available.
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.