Toys for Tots
November 25th, 2018 by Juan D. Alfonso

Marines sort donations at a Toys For Tots warehouse.
Photo courtesy of Toys For Tots

How one Marine’s dream became a foundation for hope

On a damp and chilly Christmas Eve in 2007, two Marines in dress-blue uniforms parked their government vehicle outside a dilapidated duplex in Portland, Oregon. Inside, a woman and her teenage daughter were watching from a window, anxiously awaiting the Marines’ arrival. Telling her other six children to stay put and not look outside, the woman walked out to meet the Marines with her eldest daughter.

There to play the role of Santa Claus, the Marines introduced themselves and exchanged pleasantries. When they opened the trunk, the woman’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. At the sight of the large box full of toys for her children, the woman started sobbing, overcome with gratitude and relief.

“That was the moment I dedicated myself to the Toys For Tots Program,” says Staff Sgt. Cecily Mesa about her first year distributing donations for Toys for Tots. “She was just shocked at how many toys we brought her kids. She thought maybe we’d have one toy for each kid, if we brought any at all. She wasn’t expecting a big box with lots of toys for all of them. We were like their Santa Claus that year, and I think about that night every time I volunteer.”

Every year, members of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve collect millions of toys for underprivileged children during their annual Toys For Tots collection drives. While holiday collection drives have become commonplace across the nation, there was once a time when no such programs existed.

Among the early pioneers of holiday toy drives was Marine Col. Bill Hendricks, founder of Toys For Tots. In December 1947, then-Maj. Hendricks watched his wife, Diane, lovingly craft a rag doll out of yarn in their Los Angeles home.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to give this to some poor youngster who isn’t going to have a good Christmas?” Diane asked.

Inspired by his wife’s generous spirit, Hendricks looked for a charity that could make Diane’s words reality, only to find no such charity in Los Angeles. Diane’s vision immediately became Hendricks’ mission as a Marine.

He pitched the idea to another Marine officer, and the men took the proposal to their superiors, asking to launch an annual toy drive run by Marine Corps Forces Reserve.

With the command’s approval and less than two weeks until Christmas, Hendricks—who also worked as the director of public relations for Warner Bros.—reached out to his contacts in the entertainment industry to promote the fledgling program. They gathered 5,000 toys and distributed them to war orphans and other children, working until 11:30 p.m. Christmas Eve.

The following year, Hendricks’ close friend designed the three-car train graphic that serves as the program’s logo. That friend was Walt Disney.

The same year, the Marine Corps adopted the program as a national community-action campaign, collecting and distributing toys to needy children across the nation.

“Marines are all about leading from the front, upholding traditions and being part of our community,” says Toys For Tots National Program Coordinator Maj. Ismael Lara. “Helping the less fortunate is part of that, and what Maj. Hendricks and his wife started has persisted for more than 70 years.”

According to its website, Toys For Tots has grown into a massive operation. Today, 800 Toys For Tots coordinators manage more than 40,000 Marines, Marine Corps League members, veterans and volunteers who support the annual campaigns.

In response to its massive growth and appeal, the program evolved in 1991, becoming the Toys For Tots Foundation—a national non-profit organization governed by a board of retired Marines. The foundation maintains a strong partnership with Marine Corps Forces Reserve and carries forward Hendricks’ legacy, collecting and distributing millions of toys to underprivileged children every year.

“One of the things that stands out to me is the dedication junior Marine reservists show,” says Mesa, an 11-year veteran of the program. “A lot of these Marines have families of their own, and between their civilian careers and drill responsibilities, they don’t have a lot of free time. We do most of the sorting and packing in the supply warehouse or the motor pool where there isn’t any climate control, and they sometimes work past midnight in those conditions. It says a lot about them and what this program does that they are willing to make sure kids they don’t know get to have a happy Christmas.”

Marine Reserve units continue to receive record-breaking requests for toys each year.

Recognizing that poverty drives the high demand, Toys For Tots has expanded its mission several times. In 1980, the charity established the Toys For Tots Native American Program.

“The Native American children served by the program are some of the most underprivileged kids in our country,” Lara says.

The proud legacy of the Navajo Code Talkers and their strong relationship with the Corps helped illuminate the need in Native communities, according to Lara.

The code talkers were members of the Navajo Nation who served as Marine radio operators in World War II and used their language to safely communicate sensitive information over the radio. Enemy forces were never able to crack the Navajo “code.”

While the Navajo Marines’ service is well documented and widely known—thanks in part to the 2002 film Windtalkers—Lara is quick to point out that countless Native Americans from tribes all over the country have served honorably and admirably in the Marine Corps for decades.

Until 1980, Toys For Tots operated primarily at the local level, collecting and distributing toys to needy children in the communities where they were donated.

The lack of large population centers surrounding most native reservations meant the program wasn’t serving thousands of native children. Today, Toys For Tots’ Native American Program supplies toys and books to more than 120,000 children living on reservations.

In 2008, the foundation evolved further with the creation of the Toys For Tots Literacy Program. Through the program, the foundation collects and distributes books to more than 14 million children each year.

“The literacy program provides us an opportunity to develop young minds,” Lara says. “When we invest in the education of young people as early as possible, we are investing in our future and helping to end poverty. It’s a worthy goal and something we are very proud to be part of.”

To Sgt. Eric Castillo, 6th ESB’s maintenance management chief and a seven-year veteran of the program, the book drives are just as important as the toy collection efforts, and Marines go above and beyond to support them.

“I’ve seen Marines year after year take it upon themselves to go out and buy children’s books if we don’t get enough donations,” he says. “A lot of the Marines I know joined because of the influence Toys For Tots had on them when they needed toys for Christmas, so we go all-in to make sure these kids get books with their toys. Marines have a willingness to do whatever it takes to contribute to their community, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”

For Mesa, the program’s impact has an even deeper meaning than ensuring every child has a toy for the holidays.

“I think we forget just how much Toys For Tots means to the parents,” Mesa says. “When I first volunteered for the program, I was thinking about seeing the smiles on kids’ faces, but over the years—and as a parent myself—I think one of the worst things in the world is feeling like we’ve failed to provide for our children. Maybe some of these kids will remember us when they are older, but I know that the parents will never forget what the program does for their families, and that is what makes me come back and volunteer year after year. Even if it’s just one toy, the looks on the faces of those moms and dads make it all worth it.”

While donations are always needed and welcome, Mesa says those who cannot afford a donation can come out and support the program by volunteering to help sort, pack and ship toys whenever they can.

“The community has been more than generous, and we’re always impressed with the turnout at toy drops,” she says. “But this is a big job, and there are still a lot of people who don’t know about the program. I hope as others learn about what we do, they will come out and support Toys For Tots however they can.”

In the 71 years since its inception, Toys For Tots has collected and distributed more than 530 million toys to more than 244 million needy children.

It has inspired numerous other charitable organizations to launch their own toy drives and fundraising efforts for the nation’s most vulnerable children.

With its efforts in the Native American Program and 41 million book donations to the Toys For Tots Literacy Program, the Marine Corps continues to lead in the national effort to ensure every child’s needs are met during the holidays.

And it all started with a rag doll made of yarn, a couple’s charitable spirit and a determined Marine.

For information about Toys For Tots, including how to make a donation, visit www.toysfortots.org.