Professor’s challenge creates ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ ending at Washburn

Washburn faculty and staff raised more than $2,000 and nearly 500 toys for Toys for Tots.

Adam Vlach

By 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, the Washburn faculty and staff holiday party had come to a close and 411 toys and $413 had been collected from faculty and staff for the annual Toys for Tots campaign. But Mike Russell, associate professor of psychology, wasn’t satisfied.

“I realize that it is kind of late for any of us to run out and buy toys (I still have papers to grade) but I would like to see us at least match our goal of $1,250,” Russell wrote in an email at about 11 p.m. to all faculty and staff. “I will donate $419.00 if the combined contribution of all of you reaches at least $418.00.”

Russell said he received one response that night but woke up Friday morning with no more responses.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this thing is going to fail miserably,’” Russell said. “And then there was just this domino effect.”

Michaela Saunders, web editor for university relations, was the chair of the 2015 Toys for Tots campaign committee, with the other committee members including Tracy Matthews, April Dohrman, Kayah Gausman, Rhonda Wedel, Andrea Garitano, Kim Meehan, Tara Porter and Gary Handy.

“Oh, my gosh. I was really emotional,” Saunders said about seeing Russell’s email.

Saunders said her late grandfather was a marine, and with the Marine Corps being the group that runs the Toys for Tots program, it is a way for her to remember him.

“When we were so far short of her goal, it was really sad for me,” Saunders said. “A lot of the things that we did were just the same as any other year, so there was no reason to me that we were that far below where we usually would’ve been.”

The university relations office, Morgan 119, opened at 8 a.m., and when Saunders checked the collection box at about 8:30 a.m., she said about $150 had already been donated.

Saunders said the university relations office was bustling all day Friday with people coming into the office to donate.

The donations were counted at about 4:30 p.m. and Saunders was elated to see in just over eight hours the Washburn faculty and staff had donated 23 toys and $1,104.75.

“It was probably one of the coolest days I’ve ever been a part of,” Saunders said.

The challenge Russell issued the faculty and staff of donating $418 had been surpassed by 11:30 a.m., Saunders said.

“I really didn’t know what the response was going to be,” Russell said. “I was hoping we were going to get somewhere close to reaching our goal. I didn’t expect the response that we got. I was overwhelmed.”

Russell said Toys for Tots holds special meaning to him for two reasons.

“There were two things that inspired me to want to do this,” Russell said. “One was we were so close to reaching our goal last year that I really hoped we were going to reach our goal this year, and we were pretty close with the toys this year, but the cash donations were kind of far away. We were about a third of the way there. So, knowing that we were so close last year, I just thought, ‘Well we’re not that far; there’s so many of us. If everybody contributed just a little we could reach our goal.’”

Russell also said that as child, his mother raised his four siblings and him on her own. She would work a second job during the holidays just to provide Christmas gifts for her children.

“Reaching the goal is really important to me because it’s the holiday season, and we’re talking about kids,” Russell said. “Every kid should be able to wake up Christmas morning and there’s a toy or two for them under the tree.”

The amount of donations collected was “not even close” to what Russell was anticipating when he offered to match others’ donations, he said. In the end, Russell upped his donation to $500.

Russell had nothing but glowing words for his colleagues.

“They’re the most amazing, kind-hearted, good people I could ever hope to work for or work with,” Russell said. “They’re just proof of how good people can be. This is a great group of people who are just so caring and kind and considerate. I couldn’t ask for better people to work with.”

The final tally of donations from Washburn faculty and staff boasted 463 toys and $2,153.75.

Saunders said she will remember Friday, Dec. 11 for a long time.

“Today Morgan 119 felt like George Bailey’s house at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Saunders wrote at about 5 p.m. in a Dec. 11 email to all faculty and staff.