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Commissioner Gray continues 'charity lady' tradition

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

This year, the J.C. Penney Outlet Store in Forest Park, and Clayton County Commissioner Virginia Gray, have teamed up to help hundreds of children have a Christmas.

All this week, the outlet store at 5500 Frontage Road in Forest Park, will offer a 30 percent discount to shoppers on toy purchases, if they donate at least one of their toys to the Virginia Gray Toy Drive.

On Friday and Saturday, the toys collected will be distributed to about 250 pre-selected Clayton County children at an undisclosed location.

Gray said between the donations, and money the county has chipped in to purchase bicycles and a variety of toys from other area stores, she expects to give away about $10,000 worth of toys to Clayton County children this year.

The tradition of Virginia Gray's Toy Drive started nearly 12 years ago at Caldwell Banker Bullard Realty in Jonesboro -- before she was a commissioner -- according to Gray. That year, Toys for Tots, which used Gray's office as a toy collection station, forgot to pick up the donations.

Someone needed to benefit from the toys and for that to happen, someone had to deliver them. Gray's co-workers believed that she was up to the task.

"I was sort of dubbed 'the charity lady' at my job," said Gray, who has worked at the realty company for 25 years. The future commissioner enlisted the aid of Clayton County paramedics and the Fire Department to deliver the toys where needed.

"We dropped off the toys at low-income housing complexes and motels, mobile home parks, and ended up at a hospital," said Gray. "They gave me a Santa Claus hat and I really felt like Santa Claus."

After the initial drive, which Gray called a "fluke," many citizens asked if she was going to continue the drive next Christmas. Enlisting the help of local department stores, Gray did the drive the following year when she became a commissioner.

Fred Nakanishi, manager of the J.C. Penney Outlet Store in Forest Park for 17 years, said this is the first year the store had assisted Gray in the drive.

"Virginia Gray and I were just talking and we thought that this would be a great idea to try," said Nakanishi. "I think its the right thing to do. Since we do business in the community, if the community wins, the businesses win."

While Gray has continued the drive for the last 11 years, she said she never formally advertises for it. As early as August every year, parents call the Board of Commissioners office asking about the toy drive and putting in their requests, Gray said.

Every year, Gray enlists a team of shoppers to help her purchase the toys over a period of several weeks.

Latisha Rector, a substitute teacher in Clayton County and one of Gray's shoppers, said that the toys help uplift the spirits of children no matter what their situation is at home.

"I think it serves as a confidence booster," said Rector. "It lets them know that there are people out there that really care for them and they can have things that other children have."