Two West Orange-area friends spearheaded the Cast Member Toy Box, their final act of making magic as Disney cast members.
Filled with boxes and bags full of stuffed animals, “Frozen” dolls, craft kits and toy cars, the storage unit that houses the Cast Member Toy Box resembles an oversized toy chest.
Inside, Laura Bartlett and Erin Blackketter are hard at work organizing the donations that soon will make their way to more than 650 local children — each part of a family affected by the Disney furloughs and layoffs.
What the two friends initially envisioned would be a small toy drive turned into a true labor of love. It’s also their last act of making magic as Disney cast members themselves.
HARD TIMES, BIG HEARTS
Bartlett and Blackketter are among the more than 28,000 cast members who recently received notice of separation from their roles at Disney.
It was a heartbreaking blow; each had been with the company for 10 years. Fortunately, they both have their own small businesses,and their husbands also are Disney cast members who have remained with the company.
Despite their own heartache, they knew there were other families hurting even more.
Bartlett, a Horizon West resident, had the idea of giving back to cast members and their families by starting a toy drive — the Cast Member Toy Box — that would benefit the children of cast members.
“We’re both moms to small children, and the thought of kids not having Christmas this year — after everything that they’ve been through — was just something that I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that was happening,” Bartlett said.
Blackketter, an Ocoee resident, said she is the more mellow and realistic of the pair, while Bartlett tends to dream big. However, she was all in to help run the toy drive.
“I said, ‘You know, that would be so fun to do as our final act as cast members — to do some big magic for these families that aren’t as fortunate as we are — so let’s do it,’” Blackketter said.
As it would turn out, dreaming big would be necessary on their endeavor to brighten the holidays for the children of cast members.
When they began the toy drive, they expected to help about 20 families. As the toy drive wraps up, the pair — along with lots of community support — are providing toys to the children of more than 300 families.
“We’ve spent at least seven hours a day doing toy drive stuff,” Bartlett said. “One day, we spent 16-and-a-half hours bagging toys, the two of us. That was quite the day. There were some tears, there was some laughter, but it’s been really rewarding, and we’re so excited to give these kids these toys. We’re getting some amazing donations … really awesome toys that these kids are going to be so excited to open. We’re really, really blessed in how amazing our community has been.”
Because of the time commitment, it’s also been a balancing act between family time and tending to the Cast Member Toy Box. As cast members, though, the need to help others runs deep.
“When we started this, we were talking about how people right now are just trying to figure out how they’re keeping a roof over their head, how they’re keeping food on their table, how they’re keeping their kids supplied with school supplies and things they need,” Bartlett said. “Then, all of a sudden, you throw in that Christmas is coming around, and there’s expectations from your children that you as a parent don’t want to disappoint them.”
“There are kids that still believe in Santa, and how can you keep that magic alive when you don’t have a job?” Blackketter said. “It’s not just explaining to your children, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the money for this.’ It’s them saying, ‘Santa can’t come here.’ That’s heartbreaking for me.”
Bartlett and Blackketter began collecting toys for the Cast Member Toy Box in mid-October. There have been multiple in-person toy drop-offs, and people also could buy gifts off the Amazon wish list.
When families signed up for the Cast Member Toy Box, they filled out a Google form with their information, including how many children they had, each child’s age and gender, and their children’s wants and needs. That could range from a specific toy the child wanted to providing a general list of what their interests were.
Early on, the two decided they wanted to extend their toy drive to include teenagers up to 18. However, getting gifts for teens turned out to be one of their biggest challenges, because many are interested in items such as electronics and bicycles.
Luckily, the response from generous donors following a Facebook post helped fill in much of the gap to provide items for the teens, too. Bartlett and Blackketter said the response from those wanting to help has been overwhelming.
“It’s kind of amazing how many people want to show up for other people,” Blackketter said.
Bartlett said many people have hosted their own small toy drives to bring to the Cast Member Toy Box. Some have arrived with SUVs and trunks full of toys.
The toy drive officially ended Tuesday, Dec. 1, and Bartlett and Blackketter already have distributed toys to 75 of the families on their list. They now are working through their waitlist to help as many children as possible.
“We’ve had such a fantastic response,” Blackketter said. “We want to make sure that all of these toys find themselves in the homes of these families.”
With the light at the end of the tunnel, the two friends reflect on the process and how it brought them even closer. For Blackketter, it’s also served as an opportunity to teach her 4-year-old son the importance of giving back.
“He sees so much of what we’re doing, and I feel like it really helped him understand things a little better,” Blackketter said. “He’s talking about toys he doesn’t want anymore that he wants to donate and help other people. … As cast members, I feel like we are a special kind of people. We do volunteer a lot and we are always making magic for people, and I feel like sometimes at home, you don’t get to see how much our kids kind of envelope that same personality.”
Both agree that one of the most rewarding aspects of their project lies in knowing that other families will be able to have a good Christmas this year.
“We just are two women that want to really help,” Bartlett said. “We don’t want anything other than these kids and their families to have a great holiday. That’s just been our goal, our driving force, and what gets us through these long days, long hours and the time spent away from our own families.”