Toys for Tots celebrates its 75th year
By Prioleau Alexander
In 1947, Marine Corps Reserve Major Bill Hendricks was tasked by his wife Diane to find an agency that supported children in need … she’d made some handcrafted dolls and wanted them given to children as Christmas presents. When Bill reported back to Diane that he’d looked, and couldn’t find such an organization, she gave him a simple instruction: “Well, start one.”
Being a good Marine and having been given orders by his “commanding officer,” Major Hendricks asked the Marines in his reserve unit to assist, and in 1947 they collected and distributed 5,000 toys.
It was an exciting start for what became an extraordinary non-profit, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Today, the Marine Toys for Tots Program distributes an average of 18 million toys to seven million less fortunate children annually — for a total of about 600 million toys to date. The number of celebrities that have lent their support is vast, ranging from Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan to Walt Disney and the Melania Trump.
Colonel Norm “Punch” Smith, USMCR (Ret) has been involved in Toys for Tots since just days after he left his tour in Vietnam. His new civilian job sent him to Philadelphia, so he signed onto a Marine artillery unit there — and shortly thereafter began to volunteer his time.
“I’ll never forget,” Colonel Smith said, “there was active-duty Marine from the I&I unit in charge the local effort — Staff Sergeant Garcia. He told me in a conversation that he’d been the recipient of Toys for Tots toys as child growing up in Southern California. Seeing a man go from those humble beginnings to a Staff NCO in the Marine Corps — and him still remembering what those toys meant — well, that’ll give you a lot of motivation to pitch in.”
According to Colonel Smith, Toys for Tots has become a well-oiled machine, but has grown so much it’s always in need of civilian volunteers. Parents applying for assistance must be screened, toys must be collected from dozens of drop-off sites and sorted by age and sex; then, parents must be called and told when the toys are ready, and the toys for those specific parents must be bagged and marked for pick-up.
“I think taking a child to the store and having them pick out a toy for a less fortunate child is a wonderful way to instill the importance of giving,” Colonel Smith said. “But if that’s too much, financial gifts are a huge help. Cash gifts enable the Toys for Tots organization to purchase toys in bulk, direct from wholesalers — so a small donation goes a long way.”
“I’d be remiss,” Colonel Smith added, “if I didn’t thank meteorologist Rob Fowler for his tireless efforts in the Toys for Tots program. He’d been a real champion for the cause.”
When asked what inspired her to offer such exhaustive service, she offered this amazing story, and lesson learned:
“The first year I went out, I was riding with Cole Kinard of the North Charleston Police Department and a group of volunteers, and we saw this young boy over on Accabee Street, walking at 7 a.m. on Christmas morning — no coat, hands in pockets, head down, just walking.
When we passed him, and I told Cole we had to stop. There was no way a little kid should be walking that early on Christmas morning unless things at home were not good. Cole called him over and I said we had a special delivery from Santa for him and his brother and sisters. This little boy ran home hollering at the top of his lungs, ‘Momma, Momma — Santa didn’t forget me!’ Believe me, there wasn’t a dry eye in our van. You see, our society tells kids if they are naughty, they get nothing for Christmas, and too many kids — due to circumstances beyond their control — get nothing, and thus feel ‘not good enough.’ What does that do to a child’s esteem?”
Currently a full-time teacher at Dorchester District 2, Master Sergeant Brennan offers a lesson that teaches us all something — perhaps nicely followed by the question we should all ask: If not me, who? If not now, when?
Your Mercury asks our readers with “treasure” to help. We also ask those with less “treasure,” but “time and talent” to step up and lend a hand. Toys for Tots is certainly a cause that helps us remember “the real reason for the season.”
For complete information on how to donate on-line, or for a list of drop-off locations, visit Charleston-sc.ToysForTots.org. To volunteer, visit toysfortotsusa.org/volunteers.