From goodness of a Raven

Running back Willis McGahee pushes a toy drive on radio, community responds, children benefit

December 19, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

The first time Howard County Executive Ken Ulman posed his question yesterday, the preschoolers sitting cross-legged on a carpet at the Dasher Green Head Start Center in Columbia just sat there.

But after a little coaching, every hand shot up - some before he got the question out the second time: "Whose favorite football team is the Ravens?"

Laughing through that exchange was Willis McGahee, the Baltimore Ravens running back, who was on hand to give away hundreds of toys donated by the community through a project that he and others created.

"I'm just here to pass out toys," he told the children. "When you bring toys, it makes everyone happy."

From Spiderman figures to tool kits to crayons, from Etch a Sketches to Hannah Montana dolls, McGahee pulled toy after toy off a rolling cart and held them aloft as the children's eyes grew wide. Then McGahee, who has been plugging the toy drive for the past few weeks on his radio show, reached down and gently placed a toy in the waiting hands of each child.

Sika Alle, 5, from Columbia clutched a Yu Gi Oh! figure that he had received from 26-year-old McGahee, who played for the Buffalo Bills for four seasons before coming to Baltimore this year.

"Its eyes light up," Sika said. "And you can change his arms."

The children scarcely noticed the autographs that McGahee scrawled on the toy boxes; it was the contents they cared about.

Micaella Leon, 4, of Laurel carried a Winnie the Pooh refrigerator set that was way too big to fit in her backpack.

"I'm going to play with it with my sister," she said.

When there seemed to be slight resistance from a child about a basketball being offered as one of the toys, McGahee quipped: "Oh, he wants a football; I don't blame him."

The idea for the toy giveaway was suggested just before Thanksgiving by a guest on Anita Marks' radio show on Baltimore's ESPN 1300. The radio-show host said she immediately turned to McGahee and asked if he would help. Three toy drop-off dates at Michael's Pub in Columbia - where McGahee and Marks co-host a two-hour show on Thursdays - helped the idea become reality.

The Community Action Council of Howard County Inc., a nonprofit agency that also provides housing and energy assistance and a food bank, welcomed the toys and matched them with the Head Start group.

"It was something that was brought to my attention," McGahee said. "I'd never done it before. I was looking forward to it."

Marks said she couldn't believe that three drop-off dates netted more than 650 toy donations from the community. She said she was optimistic that the toy drive would become an annual event.

"I think it's because it's him," she said of McGahee. "People wanted to help him. This town is crazy about the Ravens, even though they're 4 and 10. When you have someone who's only been in town for six months, and they want to reach out and help the community, it's really spectacular."

Ulman said he considered the toy project a great opportunity for the children to view McGahee as a role model.

"Kids grow up, and they see someone play football Sunday, but they know he thinks it's important to be involved in the community, and hopefully they will be themselves," he said. "More than the toys, it's the lesson of giving back, of being part of the community."

Ulman said he thought the project was especially meaningful in a place like Howard County.

"One of my frustrations is we're one of the wealthiest counties in the country," he said. "It makes it hard to remember that there are people here who need a hand."

He noted that the 2008 fiscal year budget included a 45 percent increase in community partnership grant money for nonprofit groups. The allocation rose from $2.9 million to $4.1 million, Ulman said.

Mary Valmas, a 19-year teacher, said her class had been excited about the visit from McGahee and the toys he would bring.

"It was a wonderful thing that he did on the radio," she said. "When I told them he was coming, and he was a very special football player, they were excited. They hear their dads talking about the Ravens."

Valmas agreed that there was an important lesson in McGahee's visit.

"I think it sends a message that there's someone out there who cares about them beyond their families," she said. "We talk about the larger community beyond mom and dad and school and uncles. I think they kind of get that."

june.arney@baltsun.com

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