NODAWAY, Iowa — As their shop burned a year ago, Vince and Judy Else wondered if their days of refurbishing used toys and giving them to needy families might be over.
Already in their 70s, the retired teacher and his wife thought it may be time to end the Share-a-Toy program after more than 50 years.
But Vince's former students wouldn't let that happen. This Christmas season, the Elses are back at work in a new blue steel building, paid for largely with donations, erected on their property on the south side of Nodaway.
“Not once did I believe that we would ever have a building like this to give toys away in,” said Vince Else, standing in his new workshop.
Share-a-Toy began in 1962 when a student in Vince's Sunday school class said he would go without presents that Christmas. Vince found an old toy tractor, spruced it up and gave it to the boy's father, who presented it to the boy on Christmas morning.
The program grew steadily, eventually drawing needy families from across the region, including from eastern Nebraska, to Nodaway, a town about 70 miles southeast of Omaha.
About six years ago, the Elses bought the single-story white house next door to their home to repair and store the toys. But an electrical fire destroyed it in the early morning hours of Dec. 17 last year.
Two days later, former student Jessi Gaunt and her husband, Andrew, started the Operation Rebuild page on Facebook.
“They came over and said, 'You're not quitting. We're starting over for you,' ” Judy said.
For Jessi Gaunt, the effort to replace the shop and keep Share-a-Toy going was personal. A mother of five, she and Andrew had relied on Share-a-Toy when their own funds ran low.
“When it was just my husband working, it was stressful,” said Gaunt, now a manager at the Pizza Ranch in nearby Red Oak. “It was a great relief to us — we knew our kids were going to have something.”
The Gaunts spearheaded months of fundraising, including nights at local restaurants where all the tips collected went to the Elses' new building.
The fundraising, plus news stories about the effort, led to about $19,500 in donations.
The Elses purchased the prefabricated building from Menards at 120th Street and West Dodge Road in Omaha, where son Jim Else works.
Judy Else is a retired nurse. Vince Else taught math and physical education and coached numerous sports in his 38 years at Villisca Community Schools.
Vince's former students were involved with nearly every aspect of construction, from laying the concrete to installing plumbing and wiring. The building was assembled by an Amish crew from Leon, Iowa.
The shop was finished Nov. 1. It provides enough room that parents can peruse the toys there, sparing the Elses the effort of hauling the gifts over to the community center in Nodaway's tiny downtown, as the couple did before the fire.
And the building is spacious compared with their old shop, with ceilings more than 20 feet high, shelves lined with toys and tables piled high with stuffed animals. There is a smaller room in back where the Elses clean and fix the toys.
The new building cost $24,000, with about $4,500 coming from their own pockets.
“We had to finish up what we've got started, and it's got to come from somewhere,” Judy said.
Judy Else said the couple distributed toys to 806 children in their biggest year so far. As of late last week, 246 kids had received toys. But the couple expects to help many more before Christmas this year, and it's possible they could surpass that total.
The Elses say they don't know what the future holds for their toy giveaway. They plan to keep it going as long as possible, but Judy is 72, and Vince is 77. It's hard for them to know how long they can keep it running.
“We were willing to stop because of our age,” Vince said. “And here we are with a brand-new building.”
And publicity about the fire has led to an outpouring of toy donations, the Elses said. They estimate that 30,000 toys have been given in the past year; that's more than in the previous three years combined.
Jessi Gaunt said she hopes someone will take the Elses' place when they can no longer go on.
“I think there is enough support in our community, someone would be willing to take it on,” she said. “I wouldn't want to see it stop.”