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Annual Cram the Van Toy Drive benefits Big Brothers Big Sisters this weekend

The donations benefit the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, in which Vinny DiNatale has been a mentor for over a decade.

GLASTONBURY, Conn. — Vinny DiNatale dedicates his life to helping youth in the Greater Hartford area. A resident in West Hartford, he is a bus driver for Glastonbury Public Schools and is a Big Brother mentor for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters (NBBBS) in Hartford.

This year, he is continuing the bus yard's annual toy drive, which benefits the NBBBS.

The idea of a toy drive came up during a conversation between him and a coworker while he was starting out as a driver at the school bus yard over 10 years ago. He has spearheaded the bus yard's toy drive since 2013, which is now hosted at the Richards Irving Gas Station.

Vinny said fewer toy drives took place last year due to COVID-19, and with the help of word of mouth, it led to them having their biggest year in 2020.

"We filled two large vans to capacity because there was no other place to bring toys and games," he said.

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This year, they will have a large van and a minibus to fill, and they aim to fill both to capacity.

"It was up in the air if we were going to do it last year too, and people said just do it, and we did it. We had our biggest year. Hope to break that this year. But anything we get is a gift," he said.

They are looking for toys for kids ages 6-18. However, Vinny said that it is consistently difficult to get donations of toys and gifts for the teenagers.

"We struggle with the teenage years because it's limited to what we can get for them," Vinny said. "We don't do phones, speakers, or anything like that."

With monetary donations, Vinny gets sports balls for the teens, like basketballs, footballs, or soccer balls. He also recommends getting teens portable radios and books, including educational books and young adult chapter books.

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The donations benefit the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, in which Vinny has been a mentor for over a decade.

"I love to mentor them, the boys, because driving the school bus, we're not allowed to engage with them into their personal life, but a lot of the time...I hear things about how the parents aren't there for them."

"The boys, they need that male figure," Vinny added, "and a lot of them don't have that. Or, they get stuck with the wrong male figure that gets them in trouble."

LIST: Connecticut toy drives for the holiday season

Vinny said he has learned a lot about "having patience" with the kids he has mentored, "especially with the newer generations." 

Giving back to the community doesn't stop there; Vinny also collects school supplies and backpacks year-round for kids in need.

"My car always has backpacks in it that I collect, especially at the beginning of the school year," he said.

For all of his hard work with being a mentor, NBBBS presented Vinny with an Outstanding Mentor Award in 2019.

"I plan to keep doing it as long as I can, especially with the toy drive," he said.

The toy drive will take place at Irving Gas Station on 890 Main Street in South Glastonbury, from 8 a.m. to around 2 p.m.

There will be a social distancing table to drop off toys as well as the option to drop off the donations while staying in the car. Volunteers will be wearing masks.

For those who are interested in becoming a big brother or big sister, here's what Vinny suggests:

"If you love kids and have the drive to do it, I suggest signing up," Vinny said. "Even some people have children and they still take in a child, and they put them in as of they were one of their own children."

Leah Myers is a digital content producer at FOX61 News. She can be reached at lmyers@fox61.com

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