MUST Ministries provides 'dignity of choice' with annual toy shop

Nov. 24—TOWN CENTER — As temperatures drop and holiday decorations go up, Cobb-based nonprofit MUST Ministries hopes to provide "the dignity of choice," to struggling families during the Christmas season.

That ethos, as described by Greg Elder, MUST's vice president of client services, is at the center of the organization's annual toy shop, where MUST clients go to pick out free gifts for their children.

The toy shop is a decades-old tradition for MUST, which serves homeless and struggling families by providing food, clothing, housing, employment services and more. The shop allows parents to come in and peruse, picking out items they know their child will like.

"This is about mom and dad getting the choice of picking between the plain purple jacket and the sparkly jacket," said Elder, gesturing to two jackets on display at the shop.

What's more, this year the toy shop is operating out of a storefront at Town Center at Cobb — previously, it has hosted in places such as church basements or MUST facilities. Renting the vacant space at the mall, MUST believes, will provide something closer to a traditional shopping experience.

"One of the things I learned about poverty a long time ago is it eliminates choices for so many people," said MUST CEO Ike Reighard. "... We can give our clients a choice, and an atmosphere like this, because they know what their kids like or don't like. ... It creates what we call parity versus charity. Parity lifts people up, charity makes people feel beholden."

Last year, the shop provided more than 126,000 items to roughly 6,000 children in need.

When Paula Rigsby first began volunteering at the toy shop in 1999, MUST mostly gave away used items, and one new item per family.

Now, there are no used goods at the toy shop, and each child gets up to 12 items. Rigsby said kids receive a "mixture of wants and needs." There are larger gifts such as bicycles and toy kitchens, smaller toys such as dolls and Legos, but also books, school supplies, toiletries, makeup, clothing, games, blankets, sporting goods and stuffed animals.

"They don't have to say, 'Could I get my child a coat, or do I need to buy a turkey?" said Rigsby, MUST's director of seasonal programs. "Can I get them a bike, or do I ... need to buy groceries this week? They don't have that to worry about."

Reighard said the need among families this year is "enormous."

"So many people have been rocked by COVID, and now they've been rocked again with what inflation has done," he said.

MUST accepts gift donations at its headquarters, distributes collection bins to its partners, and also uses financial donations to purchase items.

Some of the most needed items, Elder said, are those sought by teenagers, especially teenage boys — earbuds, certain clothes, men's hygiene products.

Particularly popular this year across age groups are Squishmallow plush toys. The most requested item is a bicycle; one donor buys 500 of them for MUST every season.

"Some people, it's their thing at Christmas," Elder said.

The second-floor storefront at Town Center was chock-full of gifts Tuesday for an open house ahead of the shop's Dec. 1 opening. But that supply will last just a day or two, and be restocked constantly.

"Sometimes when people see the pictures, they think, 'Oh, they're good.' No, we're not," said Kaye Cagle, MUST's vice president of marketing and public relations.

The toy shop opens for registered MUST clients Dec. 1 and runs until Dec. 22, Elder said.

Those looking to donate can bring new, unwrapped items to the MUST Donation Center at 1280 Field Parkway in Marietta, Tuesday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Donors are asked to label the box "Toy Shop."

For more information, or to register to receive gifts through the toy shop, visit