The Toys Tour makes a difference for disadvantaged children in Central Florida.
by Gregg Mansfield
Putnam County is one of the poorest counties in Florida with nearly a quarter of the residents living below the poverty line. It’s why the late founder Rus Matos started the Toys Tour more than 20 years ago, so no child would be without a toy for Christmas.
Velocity Powerboats’ Walter Braithwaite stepped in two years ago to lead the Toys Tour, taking the early December event to new heights. Braithwaite and the greater powerboating community recognized the need for Putnam County.
The event is billed as the largest marine toy collection charity with powerboaters donating toys to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, which then distributes the toys to children in need and kids that are victims of domestic violence.
“Every year we’ve given more gifts than the year before and (2022) was the most gifts that we ever had,” Braithwaite said. “In 2021, we were their only source of toys because of Covid, they lost their other sources.”
One of the first steps Braithwaite took was to turn the Toys Tour into a nonprofit 501(c)(3). The hope is to attract larger corporate sponsors in future years to supplement the generous support from the boating industry and the Putnam County Tourism Council, Braithwaite said.
The 2022 event was the biggest Toys Tour yet, attracting 83 paid boats and an additional 25 boats participating in the toy drop off. Thanks to the sponsorship of Mystic Powerboats, Cigarette Racing and Velocity Powerboats, the Toys Tour had participants from as far away as Ohio and Virginia.
“The weather is probably a big attraction for a few of the participants,” Braithwaite said. “The weather was the best you could possibly have. It was just perfect.”
The Toys Tour takes place on the St. Johns River in Palatka, Fla., about an hour south of Jacksonville. Organizers opted for a two-day event with a Friday run to Dunns Creek sponsored by Cigarette Racing. The narrow creek has crystal clear water, requiring the boats to go single file. After making it through the winding creek, the boats rafted up and had a catered lunch at 3 Bananas.
Because the number of participants has grown the past two years, the Friday and Saturday night events moved to nearby Riverfront Park. Organizers erected large tents for the event and used the nearby docks to offer a VIP experience for the sponsors.
“They’re the ones that put up the money so we can have an event of this caliber,” Braithwaite said.
Friday night’s party included a pig roast and the son of the founder, Louis, served as the DJ for the evening.
On Saturday morning, the boaters got to play Santa Claus and the reason most participate in the early winter event. The first stop was at the Welaka docks to hand off the presents to Putnam County Sheriff’s officials. Gifts ranged from bikes to Xbox consoles, and the presents just kept coming as more than 100 boats dropped off multiple presents.
Organizers don’t track the number of donated gifts, but Braithwaite said in 2021 the Putnam County Sheriff’s department had more gifts than it could distribute to the children. When nearby Volusia County had gifts stolen a week prior to Christmas, Putnam County was able to distribute the extra toys.
After dropping off the toys at the docks, the boats headed to Renegades on the River (a co-sponsor) in Crescent City for a catered lunch. After lunch, the boats rafted up at Silver Glenn, which is fed by a natural spring. “It’s just really majestic, the waters are crystal clear blue,” he said.
Saturday night was the big bash featuring door prizes and bands. Mai Oui in Jacksonville handled the catering that featured six food stations that spanned seafood to steaks. “We really do it first class and try to make it really special for everybody participating,” he said.
Organizers only charge $120 per person for the Toys Tour, which includes four meals. It’s a bargain, especially for the quality of the event. Braithwaite said some participants have encouraged him to charge a higher price, but he’s resistant.
“I’ve been told that we’re not charging enough for what we’re giving,” Braithwaite said. “But we really are because it’s about the giving. We don’t want to overcharge people, we want them to give gifts for the kids.”