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Marmen's neighbors brought an array of talents to the table in order to help make toys for the Sussex County chapter of Toys for Tots.

  There is something about the small-town atmosphere in much of Sussex County that engenders its residents to a close-knit sense of community. Neighbors help neighbors, those neighbors turn into friends, and, before you know it, those friends become family. You will find no better example of this phenomenon than in the home — and more specifically the workshop — of Ken and Mickey Marmen. Their basement woodworking space quickly transformed into a holiday toy factory in 2020 with the help of volunteers from their neighborhood, Lewes Crossing. 

   Ken Marmen says the plan, when building his home, was always to have a workshop. But, when he reached out to the Sussex County chapter of Toys for Tots, he realized a home workshop could serve a greater good. When he sent out an email to members of his community seeking volunteers to help with the toy making process, he received a prompt, enthusiastic response. Neighbors and friends turned out in shifts to help construct and paint wooden toys to contribute to the organization. Whether it was the actual building of the toys or putting on the finishing touches of paint, the group effort yielded truly unique gifts for underprivileged children in Sussex County.

   “The community itself is just unbelievably talented, as far as the people we’ve got helping us here,” Ken Marmen says. “Everyone’s got their own little talent we throw in there, and we have fun.”

   The first year of the project fell on unfortunate timing — December 2020, the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group meeting at Marmen’s shop consisted of 10 people, and they produced 50 toys to donate. In 2021, the group more than doubled in size, reaching a total of 36 members. There were so many people who wanted to volunteer, they had to start limiting the number of people per shift.

   “We ran three shifts the first year; one during the day and two in the evenings, two throughout the week and one on the weekend. It was pretty much the same people,” Mickey Marmen says. “Then we got 36 people and we had to do a fourth shift, and broke it down to where you almost couldn’t let people come every time. You had to sign up so we didn’t overcrowd.”

   The group became so popular within the neighborhood that before they had even wrapped up for the season, people wanted to know when the work would be starting up again.

   Toys produced included a variety of items, from wooden race cars and jeeps to trains, to custom doll beds — each with hand-painted designs on the headboard, as well as pillows and bedspreads hand-sewn by some of the members of the community.

   “I wasn’t sure if kids still played with wooden toys,” says Ken Marmen. “But when we went down to the warehouse to drop everything off, the guys there said they loved them.”

   Volunteer Cheryl Boyd says it’s knowing that the children who need some holiday joy the most are receiving hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind toys created with care that makes the experience of working in the shop so gratifying. 

   “I like the feeling that it comes from our heart, that we’re not doing it because we have to do it. We’re doing it because we choose and want to do it,” Boyd says. “And being led by Mickey and Ken, and how giving those two are, I feel personally it’s made all of us want to 
give more.”

   Volunteer Amy Feinberg adds another crucial point, “The kids could not buy toys that were made this well.”

   Organizers of Toys for Tots were so impressed with the quality of the group’s creations, they requested several wooden trains be made to use as awards at their end-of-the-year ceremony. These were items built with love, which also means they were built to last.

   “You know what’s unique is that these are gifts you’ll never get anywhere else,” volunteer Debbie Gensch says. “And because of that, the hope is that the families won’t discard them, but pass them down.”

   Gensch’s husband Al, who served in the Marines and has been involved with Toys for Tots throughout the years, says knowing the toys he and the group have produced have found homes with children who really need them is what means the most to him.

   “It’s right here in my heart,” Al Gensch says. “I’ve been supporting Toys for Tots for years, but now I can really support them!”

   While the toys usually take center stage, the gifts offered by this community go beyond the tangible. Time, energy, talent, love — while you can’t hold them in your hand, these are the presents all of us really need. When it came to forming the group, it was made clear: People’s presence was more than enough. “It doesn’t matter what talent you have,” Boyd says. “Whether you are a superb painter or want to learn the woodworking machines, it doesn’t matter what your level is. Anything is appreciated and needed.”

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