Suffolk’s top elf

Published 8:32 pm Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cheer Fund: John Woleben is a full-time insurance agent whose favorite accessories are his figurative elf ears. Woleben is the coordinator for the Cheer Fund and US Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots program in Suffolk. As such, he is responsible for securing and distributing 5,000 toys this year.

John Woleben very well may have the job every child wants to grow up to have.

This year, he is tasked with securing and purchasing 5,000 toys from stores, distributors and donations from community members.

Last year, he cleared a Walmart store of its entire stock of bicycles, had them loaded into a trailer and towed them away.


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Those bicycles were delivered to Santa to make sure no child in the community went without a Christmas present.

Woleben is the coordinator for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots efforts in Suffolk. The Suffolk News-Herald Cheer Fund supports Suffolk Toys for Tots.

“It’s a fun job,” Woleben said. “It’s fun going and shopping for toys. I guess it’s something just about every kid would want to do. But, the fun part for me is knowing where they’re going and what it means for the kids.”

Woleben has been the coordinator and Suffolk’s top elf for about eight years, since founder Bill Ashley stepped down.

The Suffolk News-Herald’s Cheer Fund was established to provide funding for the effort, and about eight years ago the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots program came in to lend a hand.

Woleben has been an active volunteer in the community as an Explorer Scout leader, swim team coach and as a political involvement committee member for NAIFA.

He has been an insurance agent for more than 30 years, and it was through his involvement with NAIFA that he began volunteering with the Toys for Tots effort in Suffolk about 15 years ago.

While Woleben, who works full-time at Friedman and Associates, wears many hats, some of his regular tasks as one of Santa’s top elves include purchasing toys from distributors, calculating goals, balancing the budget, planning drop-off locations throughout the community, putting out drop boxes, helping at events that benefit Toys for Tots, going shopping for toys, and lots of paperwork.

His favorite part of the job, though, is the hardest part.

“We get calls several times each year after we’ve already distributed toys from families who need help,” Woleben said. “One year we had a call come in just two or three days before Christmas. Her husband had just been stiffed on a job he did, and she’d gotten a job but the paycheck wouldn’t be in before Christmas. I took her to Walmart and she could’ve gotten anything she wanted to, but she got useful things — like hooded sweatshirts.”

“It just tore me up,” Woleben said. “Every year there’s a story to tell. It’s seeing the smiles on their faces and knowing that one more child will have a toy at Christmas that makes it all worth it. It’s why we do it.”

Just as there’s always something that reminds them of their reason for being there every year, there is always a challenge to overcome.

“Without fail there’s always something that happens,” Woleben said. “The year before last, someone broke into our warehouse and stole a bunch of the toys. Not too much later, I got a call from the general manager of the Walmart distribution center who told me its employees voted to give us toys.”

This year, Woleben’s budget was cut and he is still waiting for a big save, but he is confident that God will provide a means.

“The good Lord always provides,” Woleben said. “We don’t want a child to ever be without a toy at Christmas. Some say it’s just a toy, but to not receive something when it feels like everyone else in the world is can affect a child’s self-esteem and sense of worth. It’s much more than a toy.”