Conducted in memory of a young early education major at East Tennessee State University who was stabbed to death by a would-be burglar at her Knoxville apartment a few days before her winter 2004 graduation ceremony, the drive honors Berry’s passion for helping children.
On the evening prior to her murder, 21-year-old Johnia had wrapped Christmas gifts for children she worked with at ETSU’s Little Bucs Learning Center and others children she had befriended and left the gifts spread out on the floor of her living room, where they were discovered by police investigators.
Johnia’s family later delivered the gifts to the children and launched the memorial toy drive in her honor the following year.
Toys collected in the drive are distributed to school systems and child service agencies across Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia each year on the Dec. 6 anniversary of Johnia’s murder for delivery to children whose needs are identified as especially great.
Food City Store Manager James Hyatt, who helped the Berry family kick off the drive Wednesday at the Food City store on South Roan Street, where Johnia shopped during her years at ETSU, recalled that the goal set for the first year of the drive was 1,000 toys. Hyatt has seen the toy collection grow every year since then.
“There is more involvement and more people talking about the drive every year,” Hyatt said, including a woman who brought in several buggy loads of toys on Wednesday and told him she had gathering the toys all year.
Johnia’s mother, Joan Berry, said last year’s drive brought in well over 3,500 toys that were distributed to children in need across a region stretching from Greeneville to Claypool Hill, Virginia.
“This is all local. It all stays here and for children in this area,” she said.
Berry expressed her appreciation to volunteers from the Junior League of Bristol and high school Civinettes clubs who came to help with the large job of sorting the toys for distribution last year, and to the many Food City shoppers who who donated to the drive.
For those who wish to help this year, new toys may be placed in collection bins at the front of Food City stores in communities across the area.
Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.