Santa enlists help at APG HARFORD COUNTY

December 06, 1992|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

A high-priority military detail is coming to a head this week at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Ordnance Center. Its name: Operation Santa Claus.

If it reaches its target, top brass say, it should brighten Christmas for dozens of needy families.

The action is based at Building 4117, where members of Headquarters Company of the 16th Ordnance Battalion have been closeted away for several weeks transforming used and rejected toys into Christmas presents for needy youngsters. The men have rejuvenated everything from Big Wheels to Big Bird, from crib toys to remote-controlled '57 Chevys.

All the toys are on display in a showroom that, but for the absence of plastic packaging, could be mistaken for a small toy store. Parents selected through Army Community Services and Harford County Social Services are being invited to come in this week and next to select toys that match their children's wish lists.

"We've got everything you can think of here," says 1st Sgt. Steve Breton, looking a bit proud of the assortment of items that fill at least three rooms.

Operation Santa Claus started five years ago by a battalion that has since been deactivated. This year Sergeant Breton and the 16th Battalion took it over and moved it to a bigger building with better facilities.

Actually, Operation Santa Claus is a year-round effort. The battalion accepts donations of old toys in any season, and at least one staff member is assigned to the shop all year.

But the operation really heats up in the fall. For the last 30 days three soldiers, including Sergeant Breton, have been working full-time repairing hundreds of toys, including about 45 bikes.

"Every kid wants a bike for Christmas at some point in their life," says Sergeant Breton, noting that they hope to have a bike for every family that needs one.

Bike repair is challenging work, but it comes easily to 1st Sgt. Gary Patterson, who is spending his last few weeks before retirement from the Army on Operation Santa Claus. "I guess I know a lot about bikes from growing up in a family of eight kids and having two boys of my own," he says.

Sergeant Patterson says many of the donated bikes have to be stripped when they arrive. He might use parts from three broken bikes to create one usable one.

Working alongside him is 1st Sgt. Michael Simons, who's seen his share of rusty rejects in the two months he's been on the job.

"Some of the bikes that come in here are really in bad shape," he says. "We just start from scratch -- wet sanding, greasing the bearings, . . . painting. . . . It can take two or three days to do one bike."

Operation Santa Claus uses donations from local businesses to buy parts for repairs.

Other toys are less mechanical but no less difficult to restore, especially if you're not familiar with the latest creations on the market. "Some of these toys come in here in pieces and you can't tell what goes where," says Sergeant Breton, pointing out that his son was the first to recognize the remains of a Ghostbusters vehicle.

With still other items, like the large molded plastic toys popular with toddlers and preschoolers, he says, "It's just a matter of washing them up and putting the pieces back together."

He wouldn't venture a guess at the number of toys the men have restored, many of which were collected at boxes placed around the installation, but thinks there are enough for 60 to 80 families.

Operation Santa Claus serves needy military families first, but organizers expect to have enough toys this year for several youngsters elsewhere in Harford County, too.

The Army will begin inviting parents in for individual shopping sprees this week. Sergeant Breton says new toys and big-ticket items will be "rationed." But otherwise, there will be no limit on parents.

It's hard to imagine parents wouldn't find plenty to meet their needs. The assortment of vehicles alone seems unlimited -- bikes, Big Wheels, Hot Wheels, remote-controlled wheels, tow trucks, race cars, a bulldozer and even a train and tracks. Some toys are available in duplicate: dolls, books, board games, stuffed animals, jump ropes, skates, musical toys.

Whatever toys don't find their way under the tree on Christmas morning will still be used, says Sergeant Breton. APG's own Santa will stock up from Building 4117 before making his annual rounds to children in area hospitals on Christmas Day.

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