It’s the seventh year for the toy drive, which covers an area stretching from Greeneville, Tenn., to Marion, Va.
Last year more than 3,000 toys were collected, said organizer Joan Berry, and this year she hopes to gather even more.
"It’s a good feeling to know that you can help others," Berry said. "It’s a part of the holidays that we just look forward to."
Berry started the toy drive in memory of her daughter Johnia, a beautiful, ambitious young woman from the Tri-Cities, who was murdered in her Knoxville apartment in 2004.
"Johnia had a great love for children," Berry said. "That was what she loved doing was working with children, so we started this in her memory."
A graduate of East Tennessee State University, Johnia was accepted to law school in Michigan, but decided she did not like law, her mother said; her love was working with children, so she came home to Tennessee to pursue a career in child psychology instead.
Seeking to earn an advanced degree from the University of Tennessee, she’d only been in Knoxville for six weeks when she was stabbed in her apartment during an early morning robbery. Had she lived, she would’ve turned 29 this year.
On the evening of the December night when she died in 2004, Johnia had been Christmas shopping for children she babysat, Berry said - buying Christmas gifts that her grieving mother would later deliver.
"She always called them her kids," said Berry, who later started the toy drive in Johnia’s memory to collect toys for needy children every Christmas.
"The holidays is a hard time for families that have lost a loved one. It just changes your life forever," Berry said. "But this is… kind of a healing thing, I guess, for us to be able to help someone in need. That’s what the holidays are about is to help others, so I’m grateful that we’re able to do it and so thankful for everyone that takes part in helping make it all possible."
Donations of new toys can be dropped off in the donation barrels located inside Food City grocery stores through Dec. 4. The items should be appropriate for children ages infant through 14 and should not be gift-wrapped.
The barrels will be collected Dec. 5, and the toys will be distributed to schools and organizations on Dec. 6 - the anniversary of Johnia’s death.
"Christmas is a time for giving," Berry said, "and there’s nothing that we can do for Johnia, so this is kind of our gift to Johnia to give to the children."