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Profile: Arbe has passion for Toys for Tots

By Shelley Smith
ssmith@salisburypost.com
When Raul “Arbe” Arbelaez first began volunteering for Toys for Tots in 1985, he was in the Marine Corps, and Toys for Tots was part of a mandatory program. Still, Arbelaez fell in love with giving and with taking care of the country’s own people.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.
Arbelaez’s passion for toy drives for needy children extended into Rowan County.
“I knew some friends who work for the Department of Social Services,” he said, noting that some kids were not getting toys for Christmas because they were getting into the system after the cut-off date. That’s when he started collecting toys for those kids.
“Then it got to the point where people started calling me asking for help. More and more kids. We were scrambling around trying to figure out how we would hand out these toys in Rowan County,” said Arbelaez, who then contacted Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm, asking him for help.
At the same time, Salisbury Police Officer Mark Shue was submitting his idea for a toy drive for his yearly service project with the police department.
“It didn’t take us long to realize that we could work together,” said Shue.
“The two of us got together, and within 40 minutes we had a game plan that literally went crazy,” said Arbelaez. “We knew this would be a great partnership, and I can’t see this being done without all of us.”
Toys for Tots of Rowan County was formed weeks before Christmas in 2008, with 1,165 toys and more than $3,000 collected.
“All I was hoping for last year was to fill up a police car with toys,” said Shue. “Well, we did that within the first 45 minutes.”
The Salisbury Fire Department also came on board for Toys for Tots, with Chipper Thomas spearheading the operation for the fire departments.
The largest fundraiser for Toys for Tots was at Krispy Kreme on West Innes Street. Arbelaez, Thomas, Shue and others camped out for three days on Krispy Kreme’s roof. Anyone who donated a new, unwrapped toy received a coupon for free doughnuts.
“Cars were lined up just to come in,” said Arbelaez.
“It was overwhelming,” said Shue.
Krispy Kreme sold more doughnuts in those three days in the entire history of the Innes Street store.
“The people were hearing it on the radios and driving all the way to Salisbury,” said Shue. “With my job and Chipper’s job, we always deal with people in crisis, when people are at their worst. To have a solid 60 hours to do good stuff, that will blow you away. It’s such a rush. A Christmas overdose. A good will overdose.”
“Kids were emptying their penny banks,” said Arbelaez, who said he had to walk away so the children wouldn’t see him cry. “It was psychologically and physically challenging, but all of the kids who were on the list got a toy.” In fact, there were hundreds of toys left over, and Catawba County was short, so the extra toys were sent to Catawba.
“I personally drove them to Catawba County, and we were so glad that we could help out on their shortage,” said Arbelaez.
“When I finally got home (from the weekend fundraiser), I laid the money down on the table and couldn’t even speak, couldn’t hold back the tears,” said Arbelaez, whose living room was filled with toys. In the three days and two nights on the roof of Krispy Kreme, $3,200 was raised for Rowan County Toys for Tots.
Shue was touched, too.
“I’ve been an officer for over 30 years, and Toys for Tots is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done,” said Shue.
The event is being repeated this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Krispy Kreme.”I live for these three days,” said Arbelaez. “When September came this year, I started to get the itch.”
“Times are hard, people are out of work, but because it’s for the kids, people dig deep,” said Shue. “One hundred percent goes to the kids.”
Arbelaez said one great boost was joining the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce.
“The Chamber of Commerce are my guardian angels,” said Arbelaez. “They’re the best, and I’d put them up against any other Chamber.”
“Kids can’t take care of themselves,” said Thomas.
“This is all about the kids,” said Arbelaez. “Everyone wants children to have a good Christmas.”
Other local events include a breakfast at Applebee’s, a party at Alan F. Burke CPA (see box), and the fundraiser and a wrestling match Dec. 19 at the National Armory with Carolina Championship Wrestling, with all proceeds going to Toys for Tots.
All donation drop-off boxes will be collected Dec. 15, so there is plenty of time to donate a new, unwrapped toy for a child in Rowan County.
Rowan’s Toys for Tots is also looking for a larger donation ó a trailer to keep its thousands of donations in one secure place.
“If someone’s willing to donate a storage trailer, it would take a lot of weight off our shoulders,” said Arbelaez, who said their last resort was the police department’s trailer.
Stop by Krispy Kreme Friday, Saturday or Sunday, bring a toy and get some doughnuts. Or, just bring by a monetary donation.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether someone drops off $1 or $20, it’s all about the kids,” said Shue.
“This is my life, and I’m hoping to make Toys for Tots bigger and better every year,” said Arbelaez.
For more information such as drop off locations and special Toys for Tots events, visit www.toysfortots.org, and search for Rowan County.

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