Santa’s Helper

Published 12:55 am Monday, November 19, 2012

John Woleben poses with some of the toys and a bicycle that will be given to children this Christmas season. The local coordinator of the Toys for Tots program lives toys year-around.

Woleben devotes time and energy to Toys for Tots

For a man who doesn’t have any young children, John Woleben spends a lot of time thinking about toys.

In the summer, Woleben lines up his annual “toy show,” where three toy wholesalers display their wares for him to decide which toys to purchase in bulk for the Suffolk Toys for Tots program.

When fall begins, Woleben gears up for the Christmas season, when he will spend most of his time crisscrossing Hampton Roads to collect donated toys, hand them out to needy families who call him as late as Christmas Eve and coordinate other aspects of the program.

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After Christmas, there are reports to file. The rest of the year, he just keeps a close eye on the price of bicycles. If a sale price drops under $50, he’s on the phone to the central office of the Marine Corps Reserve-run program, asking for permission to buy as many as he can.

“He’s just so committed,” said Maj. Cal Clatterbuck of Suffolk’s Salvation Army Corps, which helps screen eligible families to receive toys. “I think it’s his life sometimes. He lives toys.”

An insurance salesman, the 65-year-old Woleben first became involved with Toys for Tots through the Suffolk Association of Life Underwriters. The group started collecting toys on its own in the early ‘80s, putting boxes around the city for donations.

In the late ‘90s, the group — now known as the South Hampton Roads Chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors Virginia — merged its efforts with the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program and became an official Local Community Organization, the term for an approved area Toys for Tots representative.

After family, church and work, the program takes up much of his time, he said, no matter the month of the year.

“I get calls about it year ‘round,” he said. “I start getting calls in July and August about toys or toy pickup locations.”

The calls usually persist right up until Christmas Eve. And even though nearly all of the organization’s toys are distributed at the Toys for Tots “toy shop” earlier in December each year, sometimes a need arises long after the deadline for applications and screening by the Salvation Army and the Department of Social Services.

Woleben always tries to find toys for families who find themselves in desperate situations, even if it’s only hours before Christmas.

It’s simple to pinpoint his motivation.

“It’s all about the kids,” he said. “You see the look on the children’s faces when they get a toy at Christmas.”

A less obvious motivation was his upbringing. Woleben says he was raised to give back.

“I believe everybody ought to try to give back and help their fellow man,” he said. “It’s part of my upbringing.”

His wife Ann is the lower-school librarian at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. Their son — whom Woleben calls “the pride and joy of my life” — is a pediatric emergency room physician, associate professor and dean of student affairs at the Medical College of Virginia.

When he’s not doing anything else, Woleben enjoys playing golf, swimming and reading mysteries. He’s involved in the choir and as a Sunday school teacher at Benn’s United Methodist Church.

But this time of year, especially, you can be sure he’s working somewhere as Santa’s helper.

To help purchase toys for Toys for Tots, donate to the Cheer Fund by mailing a check to P.O. Box 1220, Suffolk, VA 23439.