Flush in plush


POSTED: Tuesday, March 16, 2010

When Tom Sugita and his wife, Marie, head for Las Vegas, they will go with the knowledge that there's already a stash of loot waiting.

They left behind some of their winnings in December because it was too much to fit in their luggage, and they're reluctant to pay the high airline fee for excess baggage. And there's a closet full of booty at their Pearl City home.

Never mind the casino tables and slot machines. The Sugitas will head straight for the family game rooms at Circus Circus resort. Their goal is to win not cold, hard cash, but fuzzy, cuddly stuffed animals.

“;It's almost a compulsion,”; said Sugita, 73, who estimates they have brought back about 2,500 stuffed toys since it all started in 1982. They give the toys away to charities benefiting children. Last year they donated 170 bears and bunnies to six groups, including Ronald McDonald House Charities, the KHON-TV Lokahi Project and hospitals serving children.

She is a retired public school teacher, and he is owner of two wholesale distributing companies. Their two daughters and four grandchildren have outgrown being toy recipients.

But there is no limit to the children who “;welcome having something soft to wrap their arms around and snuggle with,”; said Donna Witsell, executive director of HUGS (Help, Understanding and Group Support), an agency that supports families with severely ill children. “;It's immediately comforting. He made a huge contribution to us last year. He has such a big heart.”;

Sugita said, “;We have fun winning. We have a personal satisfaction doing it. Marie is good at the bowling game. I play dart games.”; They do get sidetracked to play the slots, he said, and Marie is a “;Wheel of Fortune”; player.

But warm and fuzzy winnings are the goal, and the hotel “;knows what we're doing.”; The games provide for players on a winning streak to “;trade up”; from little toys to the life-size gorilla kind. Sugita bargained to “;trade down and get more pieces to share with more kids.”; He has the support of former Hawaii resident Michelle Medel, a Circus Circus manager, who also arranges to box and store the stash left behind.

The Sugitas force themselves to curtail their gambling.

“;When it fills the top of the second queen-size bed in our room, then it's time to quit,”; he said. They travel with only carry-on luggage so they can return with boxes of toys as checked baggage.

Both grew up on Big Island sugar plantations, and Sugita sees that as the root of their delight in giving. “;Giving is a gift I learned from my father,”; said Sugita. “;My parents saved for a year to buy me a bike. I remember, as a kid, we got one present from the plantation. My first one was two Gene Autry pistols.”;

“;I've been fortunate in my jobs,”; he said. “;Being rich is not important. It's what you do with your time that's important.”;

“;Sports was a trigger for me to do a lot for our community,”; said Sugita, who played competitive tennis for years. In 1981 he started a local tournament to benefit the Marine Corps Reserve “;Toys for Tots”; Christmas project, an effort he continued to run for 20 years. It was the beginning of the toy-collecting passion that takes them back to Vegas.