CRANBERRY TWP — Plush animals, games and even bicycles were stuffed into a present-shaped bounce house Tuesday until it literally spilled over.
“This is phenomenal,” said Charlie Batch, a former Steelers quarterback whose foundation, Best of the Batch, collects Christmas presents for those in need.
Best of the Batch is a nonprofit organization that aims to help children and families in distressed communities in eight Southwestern Pennsylvania counties.
Batch was in Cranberry Township on Tuesday to witness firsthand the success of MSA's Best of the Batch Toy Drive.
MSA CEO Nish Vartanian said the company became involved with the toy drive years ago. Employees have collected, wrapped and distributed gifts for several years.
“The workforce is really engaged with this,” Vartanian said. “They saw the positive impact.”
When MSA had the opportunity to host the bounce house this year, Vartanian's executive assistant, Deb Morrow, was all for it. Morrow said she believes in Best of the Batch's mission.
“Everything they do is to help those less-fortunate kids,” Morrow said. “It's been our mission to see what (we) can do up north.”
MSA opened Tuesday's festivities to the community. Several local businesses sent representatives bearing gifts.
In an effort to make the toy drive a fun event, MSA hosted an ugly sweater contest and plied attendees with hot chocolate and cookies.
“Just so people have a reason to come and hang out,” Morrow said.
The day was a success, according to Morrow. Although it was the work of many volunteers, Morrow believes Batch sets a strong example.
“He doesn't just talk the talk,” Morrow said. “He's out there, wrapping the presents.”
When gifts are collected, volunteers participate in an annual “wrapping party” in December. Each present is sorted according to age group. Children get seven to eight gifts each, according to Best of the Batch director of operations Ryan McConnell.
“It helps the volunteers get into the Christmas spirit,” McConnell said. “We can't do this without volunteers.”
Having the bounce house at MSA is a sign of growth for the foundation. Historically, the bounce house has been inflated in locations in Pittsburgh. Having a northern collection site means the foundation can reach more people.
“It means we've absolutely doubled the amount of gifts that we have,” McConnell said.
The goal of the drive is to provide families with the Christmas spirit — not just children. Batch said the foundation has “adopted” more than 150 families this year.
The term makes an important distinction: The toy drive is about teamwork and family.
As Christmas approaches, Batch works closely with approved organizations to establish connections with Allegheny County families in need. Volunteers do too.
Batch believes it's important to make sure the entire toy drive is transparent.
“We try to personalize it as much as possible,” Batch said. “They know who they're wrapping for.”
The foundation also collects food, so each family can have a Christmas meal. Parents occasionally need a Christmas gift as well.
“There are many families that are in need,” Batch said.
Batch joins volunteers to distribute gifts on Dec. 24. Some stops are house-to-house visits. Others are central to the community. The toy drive collects 6,000 to 7,000 gifts annually, so Christmas Eve can be a long day.
It's the logistics that impress Vartanian the most.
“It's awesome,” Vartanian said. “It's a lot of work.”
Best of the Batch depends on volunteerism and community support, according to Batch. More than 200 people are helping with this year's drive. But there's always work for more.
“We need manpower,” Batch said. “We need help wrapping.”
MSA plans to host the toy drive again next year. Plans for the future are already being discussed.
Batch said that's a good sign.
“We're humbled by that,” Batch said, looking at the bounce house. “We're truly humbled. Now it's like, 'How do we top that?'”
The answer to that question is: a little community effort, lots of cheer and dedication, according to Morrow.
“It's the coolest thing I've ever seen,” Morrow said.