When Brandon Welk started Brando’s Toy Drive eight years ago, he never expected it would grow so big.
It began because Welk, a Spokane glassblower, enjoyed hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner each year for his friends who may not have a family to celebrate with.
One year, he had the idea to ask guests to bring a toy to donate to charity. He had 40 people show up with toys, and then he raised a further $14,000 through a Facebook post seeking donations in exchange for entries for a drawing to win art created by him and other area glass artists.
Welk is part of a close-knit glassblowing community that embraced his toy drive. A glassblower for 22 years, he’s operated his own studio, Montage, since 2009. He creates pipes, handmade bottles and pendants, among other items.
Now, about 50 artists participate in the annual toy drive, and there’s even a competition to see who can donate the “coolest toys.”
Welk starts the drive right after Halloween and it culminates in a movie night at the Garland Theater where his colleagues Steve Beer and Royal Stumph rent the place to screen a Christmas comedy. Admission is a new toy or cash donation.
Welk said what makes this toy drive special is that he makes sure kids get what they want, not some random toy.
“I was a poor kid, and I had a stupid yellow sweater from Toys for Tots, which was embarrassing,” he said. “Giving a kid something they don’t want is like giving them nothing.”
His toy drive typically ends after Toys for Tots finishes theirs, which helps him find out who still needs a gift. Sometimes he also finds families in need on his own, or he will bring toys to women’s and children’s shelters so the staff can distribute, since they usually know what a specific kid might want or need.
When he gets cash donations, he also tries to find out what a given child may want. He said he doesn’t worry much about getting scammed, and won’t turn anyone away.
Welk’s philosophy is that not everyone has the ability to help someone out, but they can always give money.
“I learned if you can do something you should do something,” he said.
The largest cash donation the drive has received was $4,000 from an anonymous donor from the cannabis industry, which he equated to 40 bicycles.
“I’ll spend hundreds of dollars on one family to be sure they get what they want,” he said.
Beer said the movie night is in its fifth year. It will be held 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14 and the selected film is “The Night Before.”
He and Stumph have known Welk for 10 years, meeting through the glass community.
They also organize a movie night at the Garland in August to collect school supplies or cash for needy families, separate from the holiday toy drive. Beer said the Garland has been really supportive of their efforts.
The two men pay out of their own pockets to rent the theater, but Beer said they get a bit of a break since it’s for a good cause. Everyone who attends gets a raffle ticket, and after the movie ends, they raffle off prizes, which often include glass art, paintings, gift certificates from tattoo artists and pies from Green Bluff.
“Brando has a huge list (of needy families),” Beer said. “I don’t know how he does it – it’s crazy. It’s so much fun, a super fun night.”
Beer said he grew up in a single-parent home. It was hard for his mom but she always made a nice home for them. Now he’s grateful he can do this for others. He said he got lucky being able to turn glassblowing into a career. His main focus is on pendants.
Beer has three kids, ages 1, 4 and 8, Welk has a 9-year-old nephew living with him and his wife. Stumph doesn’t have kids, but said this is a great ways to give back to area youth in general. Plus, he gets to be the cool uncle.
Stumph said his parents divorced when he was 12. He took his mom’s hard work for granted, but he now realizes what she did for her family.
“I’ve been a glassblower in Spokane for 20 years, and that doesn’t happen without the support of the community,” Stumph said.
Welk said he has not organized as a 501(c)3 and doesn’t plan to since it would just add to the work he already does.
To learn more, visit facebook.com/Brandostoydrive.
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