MARION -- Darlene Hutton has been bringing joy to hospitalized kids at Christmas for the past three years and she's doing it again this year.
"It takes a village to do this," she said, as she adjusted the placement of a few of the 1,080 toys that have been donated to the annual drive so far this year.
Hutton started the effort, with the full backing from her employer, to benefit kids and their families who were stuck in St. Louis Children's Hospital, including the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), during the holidays.
What Hutton didn't know was that one of her new co-workers at Gander Outdoors would be jumping on board with enthusiasm.
"Zack has been a huge help," she said, grabbing Zack Riley as he walked by the display that occupies a huge area of the Marion story.
For Riley, the drive has a personal connection.
His daughter, Bailey, now a healthy 13-year-old, was a patient at Children's.
"She was septic and almost died," said Riley. "We donate all the time."
He said he is happy to be able to give something that will help others, especially during the holidays.
Hutton said giving to kids is special, but giving to those who are sick is even more so.
Her main goal for the drive is to enable families with hospitalized children, many that have been in care for weeks or even months, to have something that is normal, like a Christmas morning celebration.
She said this year has been amazing.
"I still have toys to pick up at Posh, Lavish Bath Box, and the Vault," she said, "plus, there's a place in O'Fallon collecting for us."
She believes there will easily be at least 2,000 items.
Her co-workers started the effort back in October, holding weekly bake sales to raise funds.
Kyle Kwasny has been a regular contributor to those, said Hutton.
"I'm just happy to help," said Kwasny.
"We've bought a huge supply of batteries for the toys," she said. "Who wants to unwrap a toy they can't play with right away?"
The collection will continue until Dec. 11 when the NICU mobile unit will be on hand to transport the toys to the hospital.
Hutton said the day will be a celebration from 11 a.m. until at least 3 p.m. There will food, bake sales, and entertainment by Matt Basler, as well as tours of the NICU mobile unit.
Anyone that would like to donate can drop off new toys or cash at Gander Outdoors, 2480 Blue Heron Drive, in Marion.