New director takes the helm at Pirate Toy Fund
Founder Gary Smith retires, but will stay involved
A changing of the guard officially took place at the Pirate Toy Fund in Rochester on June 15. Gary Smith, who founded the nonprofit organization that has delivered thousands of toys to sick and at-risk children, will pass his leadership role to Otto Harnishfeger, current president of the board of directors.
The search for a new executive director started in March after Smith announced he would retire at the end of May.
“We reviewed dozens of resumes and conducted numerous interviews and decided the best candidate was already part of our team,” said Joy Veach Rebstein, who led the executive search committee. “When we took our recommendation to the board, members confidently chose Otto to lead us into the next season of bringing smiles to children, one toy at a time.”
Harnishfeger recently retired from the Rochester Police Department after 33 years as an officer in the special investigations unit. His first involvement with the Pirate Toy Fund was as a volunteer Santa Claus handing out toys at a Christmas event for children with cancer.
“I will never forget this little girl’s expression after she received a toy and how that toy made that little girl forget her pain,” the 58-year-old Victor resident said. “From that moment forward, I realized the power of a toy and the influence this organization can have on children going through difficult times.”
Harnishfeger was elected to the PTF board in 2008 and took over as president in 2014. Simultaneously, he served as volunteer ranger coordinator for Camp Good Days and Special Times. In February, he helped coordinate a joint fundraiser called Gary’s Sauce Cook-Off, which netted each organization $20,000.
“I count Otto as one of the most hardworking and heart-driven members of the team,” said Smith ,who founded the charity in 1995. “He recognizes the importance of the PTF’s mission and has the abilities, connections and passion to take the organization to new heights.”
Smith, aka Gary the Happy Pirate, will remain on the board of directors and is helping guide the leadership transition. Harnishfeger said his primary goal is to seek new funding sources and increase community awareness. Events like the weeklong toy drive and one-day toy giveaway are held at holiday time, but he wants people to know that collecting toys and distributing them to all area hospitals and dozens of agencies is a year-round operation.
“We anticipate a big demand for toys this year as we all get back to business after coronavirus,” Harnishfeger said. “I know I can never fill Gary the Happy Pirate’s shoes, but I can carry on the mission he started of helping children get through difficult times with the power of a toy.”
Plans for Smith’s retirement party have been put on hold due to COVID-19 concerns. A community invitation will go out once a new date and location is secured.