Toys for Tots: ‘It’s a joy to do every year,’ says Marine sergeant in charge

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With the holidays come Toys for Tots donation drives, and this year the ubiquitous charity is celebrating its 75th year of operation. The U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots Program has been in operation since 1947 and shows no signs of slowing down. During its many years of operation, the charity has helped support more than 281 million children by providing them with toys and aid for the holidays.

The Marines of 4th Combat Engineer Battalion with members of a local Cub Scout troop, who will also be holding a Toys for Tots toy drive this year. (Courtesy/Facebook)

The organization was the creation of Marine Corps Maj. Bill Hendricks. When his wife, Diane, gave him some handcrafted dolls she had made and told him to deliver them to an agency that helps children in need, he was unable to find such a charity. She encouraged him to start one himself, and he and the Marines in his reserve unit managed to distribute 5,000 toys that year. The success of that program led the Marine Reserve Commandment to implement Toys for Tots as a community action program for marines across the country.

The Baltimore branch of Marine Toys for Tots has been highly successful, with as many as 100,000 toys having been distributed and 40,000-plus children having been helped by the charity’s work during 2021.

“It’s really a joy to do every year,” said Gunnery Sgt. Charles Miller, who is serving as coordinator for the Baltimore Toys for Tots branch in 2022. “There’s always a ton of volunteers for it.”

Miller is one of the active personnel who was selected for an administrative position for Toys for Tots this year, having started his work for the organization in September. He works out of the Fourth Combat Engineer Battalion in Parkville.

“They pick from upper enlisted personnel, so we generally have pretty good management and leadership skills from the get-go,” he explained. “We just jump into the program, learn about it and get things done the best we can.”

Of course, not all the participants in Toys for Tots are active Marines; many civilian volunteers all over the country help out with the yearly campaigns. The charity also has several large sponsors that collect and deliver gifts to kids, such as toy companies Hasbro, Funko and Build-a-Bear.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the process of toy distribution was streamlined to minimize interactions between recipients and Toys for Tots workers. But this proved to be a boon to the charity, which has incorporated drive-up distributions into its event lineup.

“People just drive through; we get their information and find out what they applied for, we give them their toys in the car, and it makes things a lot quicker,” said Miller. “People aren’t standing in the cold for as long. It’s streamlined a lot of things.”

‘Keep an eye out for boxes’

Working with Toys for Tots in an administrative capacity requires a great deal of collaboration with the local community. This year, the Baltimore chapter of Toys for Tots is linking up with the Baltimore Police Department, which will be assisting with distribution.

Small businesses in the area will be holding toy drives, as well as several local churches and other community centers.

“Really, it’s just about reaching out to the community — getting our name out there and helping them collect toys for the organization,” said Miller.

In addition to its holiday distribution, Toys for Tots offers other community services aimed at lower-income members of the community. They have a literacy program geared to distribute books to young children and encourage them to read, as many low-income families struggle to afford access to age-appropriate books. They also have campaigns meant to support minority groups, such as a Native American program that since 1980, has grown to benefit more than 180,000 Native American children annually, providing toys and books to participating reservations, as well as actively supporting the Office of the Vice President of the Navajo Nation with the Navajo Literacy Program.

As for Baltimore-specific events, Fox45 will hold its annual “Toys for Tots Roll Call” event on Dec. 9 at Harley-Davidson of Baltimore, where many contributing organizations will be present and make donations to the cause.

“Just keep an eye out for white Toys for Tots boxes out in the community,” declared Miller, who requests that new, unwrapped toys be donated so that the contents are even more special to young gift-openers.

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