It’s all about the kids! That’s the first thing the three Marines sitting in front of me say. All the hard work, all their worry whether or not there will be enough toys, will they be able to get enough help to do all the work — it all boils down to . . . It’s all about the kids.
Toys for Tots was started in 1947 when Major Bill Hendricks, USCR, and a group of Marine Reservists in Los Angeles collected and distributed 5,000 toys to needy children. The program was so successful that in 1948 the Marine Corps adopted the project, expanding it to a nationwide campaign. Marine Corps Reserve units conducted campaigns in each community where they were located.
The initial objective that remains the hallmark of the program today is to “bring the joy of Christmas to America’s needy children.” The Reserve unit in Harlingen carries on that tradition with gusto, last year bringing nearly 40,000 toys to children in the Valley.
Now, they’re at it again covering Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties. Staff Sergeant (SSgt.) Luis Cordova, active duty, is the coordinator and Sgt. Robert Amos, active duty, and reservist Sgt. Victor Arroyo are in charge of the Hidalgo county campaign.
They will go whereever they are asked — handing out boxes, posters and signs, giving presentations, collecting toys. There is one little bitty yet major bump in the road, however. They cannot ask. Nope, they cannot ask for anything! People have to be willing to do the giving and volunteering.
That’s right. It’s up to the people of the Valley to step up to the plate for those kids of the Valley who cannot.
Businesses need to ask to be sponsors, be drop off points, offer assistance. People need to ask to be volunteers.
Do they need volunteers? is a great question. Here is how the program works.
“There’s actually a conference that takes place the first week in October in Washington, D.C., held by the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation,” said SSgt. Cordova. “This year we had over 700 nationwide attend.”
This kicks off the campaign for the year and it then moves down to Reserve units.
“Nationwide, the community involvement makes the campaigns pretty much a volunteer run campaign,” he said. “We had no volunteers from the Valley last year. What is hardest about that is we have a huge request for toys in comparison to other areas around the nation. Yet, we don’t have the outreach that the other parts of the nation have. People here, on average, don’t donate to match the need.”
Organizations such as non-profits, churches, schools, Headstart programs and individual families submit their lists from each county to the local Toys for Tots headquarters in Harlingen.
“We have a list of organizations and families that we’ll go out and screen to ensure the need is actually there,” Sgt. Amos said. “That’s something we started doing due to people who have taken advantage of the program in the past.”
Then the process of collecting the toys begins.
“We can’t accept stuffed toys — anything that can hold bacteria. Even though it started with a teddy bear, we can’t give teddy bears anymore,” said Sgt. Amos. “It has to be new in the original wrapping with a value of at least $5 because we’ve had issues of toys falling apart before we could even give them to the kids. It can’t be a hand-me-down nor can it be wrapped. We’ll just have to unwrap it because we have to see the toy.” They also have to count each and every toy.
Last year a kind businessman loaned them an empty building to store the toys. So far this year, their warehouse hasn’t been donated and they are not quite sure where they’ll put the close to 40,000 toys they plan to collect.
Once they have the warehouse and the toys start coming in — please consider this a request to donate to the Toys for Tots campaign — the men of the Marine Reserve unit will pitch in to help sort the toys. They’ll have the warehouse divided into the various age groups from 1 to 12 years old. This is where local volunteers are needed.
Last year, the Marines worked 16 to 18 hour days in the cold, unheated, no electricity with lights by generator only warehouse.
“It got to the point that I took my little girl to help me out,” Sgt. Arroyo said. “She likes to help out. The whole family came to help out.”
This is a great opportunity to give back in a fun way. Sorting toys — what could be better? Of course, when there are not enough toys for the various age groups it’s off to the store.
“Last year it was especially funny because we were lacking a lot of toys for the 10 to 12 age group, especially for girls. We went to Toys R Us (a national sponsor),” said SSgt. Cordova, grinning. “There were a bunch of Marines buying makeup kits and Miley Cyrus backpacks.”
“I found some tiaras,” Sgt. Amos said, blushing at the memory. “But footballs, sports stuff, basketballs, are good for the older kids.”
The money comes from their account with the Toys for Tots Foundation. Any money and toys collected are all used for the Valley, not sent to be used elsewhere.
“Everything we collect from the Valley,” said SSgt. Cordova, “stays in the Valley.”
Once the toys are collected and sorted, they are delivered to the various organizations and families who are on their lists.
“We let the parents give the toy to the kids. The bond between parent and child is bigger than if someone else gave it to them. It makes a better impression to have the parents give them a toy when they know they’re parents are struggling but somehow still found a way to give them a toy. It’s better for that parent to have that five minutes of seeing their child’s joyful expression to remember as they rough out the rest of the year.”
“We’re the overseers and shadows,” said Sgt. Amos.
Finally, the Marines will be able to rest, knowing those kids are taken care of one more time.
“Some of the kids that organizations have asked us to provide toys to are kids who have been sexually abused by somebody within their family,” SSgt. Cordova said. “It makes us think. Some of the things these kids go through, the least we can do for them is get them a toy since Christmas might mean their parents aren’t there.
“If you can just take away those thoughts from those kids for a good 10 minutes by getting them a toy, that makes all the long hours worth it,” he said.
“It’s not their fault they’re in this situation,” Sgt. Amos said. “They shouldn’t have to pay for it. A kid is the most innocent thing in this world and a child’s innocence only lasts for so long. Giving a child a toy could be the thing to turn their whole holiday around.
“We don’t do it to get people’s approval or make a name for ourselves,” said Sgt. Amos. “We’re trying to be examples and hope that people will want to emulate us and volunteer.”
Collections will stop on December 15 but that is when the real work will begin and volunteers are needed.
See the side bar for drop off points. Local sponsors are Security Depot and Clark/Knapp Chevy/Honda. For further information, schedule an event or volunteer, call the Marine Reserves at 956-425-9643.