As I’ve discussed before, serving on the Inspector/Instructor staff responsible for training Marine Corps Reservists comes with a slew of secondary responsibilities that, despite their “secondary” moniker, actually make up a good portion of what active duty Marines assigned to Marine Forces Reserve actually do. Primary among these tasks are funeral honors and casualty notification responsibilities, which take precedent over just about all else, but another, less morose, task also awaits active duty and active reserve Marines that fall under the 4th Marine Division: Toys for Tots.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Toys for Tots is a Reserve function, and as such, us grubby active duty guys aren’t supposed to get our mitts anywhere near it. Unfortunately, managing two or three months of toy collection, sorting, and distribution is a full-time effort, and budgetary constraints mandate that any funds that might be used to pay reservists for extra active duty work go toward deployment workups and legitimate training… so if toys are going to make it from our collection boxes and into the hands of needy kids, you’d better believe there are some active duty guys making it happen behind the scenes. In my case, there were between two and three of us, and we devoted somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 hours a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas to trying our best to make under privileged kids’ Christmases just a little bit better.
Those aren’t sour grapes – I asked to assist in the Toys for Tots program. I grew up in the kind of house that could only afford turkey sandwiches on Thanksgiving for the better part of my childhood, where Christmas presents were often used toys purchased from Goodwill or given to us by family, and where Christmas itself was always considered a big deal. To be honest, it wasn’t even always my desire to get gifts into the hands of kids that drove me to want to help, so much as it was the awful memory of my parents’ embarrassment when I was finally old enough to ask why our Christmases weren’t quite like those enjoyed by other families.
Toys for Tots is a genuinely good program with genuinely good intentions – the problem is that people, by and large, are awful, despicable creatures, and the system put into place to protect the program from said creatures often prevents you from doing what you feel is right. During my two years managing Toys for Tots for Central Massachusetts, I didn’t meet very many needy kids, but I definitely met my fair share of scam artists, criminals, and bureaucracy.
The first thing you need to know about Toys for Tots is that Marines don’t actually distribute any toys to needy children whatsoever. Headquarters Marine Corps determined that left too much liability in the hands of Uncle Sam, and instead, the toys we collect are given en masse to other organizations that have been vetted by the Marine Corps and determined to be reputable. This layer of protection is important, because it helps those of us on the ground dispel the guilt of having to tell an organization no… the problem is, it also bars us from telling individuals in need yes – which is why the worst thing that can ever happen to a guy like me was to have a needy family show up at the warehouse door.
Central Massachusetts is ripe with old, unused factories, and we rented the same one each year to store, sort, and manage the massive amounts of toys we took in from individual donations and large companies like LEGO and Tyco. Most of the work is actually lugging around boxes, dividing toys by intended gender and age group, and maintaining precise records of what you take in, and what you send out. Most people might be surprised to learn that the majority of what makes Toys for Tots work has nothing to do with wearing your dress blues, and instead looks a lot more like loading quad cons for a deployment.
The problems arise when organizations apply to distribute the toys we collect and are ultimately turned down. That was the case when a woman, who claimed to be a nun, approached me at the warehouse one day. Our facility, deep in a run down industrial portion of Worcester, didn’t see much foot traffic, so I was surprised to see her in my doorway as I hurriedly counted another shipment of Nerf Guns we couldn’t give away (Toys for Tots can’t distribute any toy weapons).
She explained that her Church had been turned down by Headquarters Marine Corps and that she believed it was because she struggled with the English on the application (she primarily spoke Spanish). I commiserated with her, and to be honest, she seemed sincere, so I told her I’d talk things over with my First Sergeant and see if there was anything we could do. Technically, giving her anything would be a violation of my orders, but I didn’t see any harm in running the request up my chain of command.
After a discussion with my leadership and a phone call to the nun, we determined that she’d be happy to accept some of the toys we weren’t allowed to distribute. Again, this was a violation of my orders, but it seemed harmless enough… after all, she seemed like the type of person that wanted to do some good.
She arrived a few days later as my wife and I worked to sort a new batch of toys. My wife, like many Marine wives, spent as much time at the warehouse as the Marines did during the holiday months, in part out of a desire to help, but also because we’d often spend 15 or more hours a day there, seven days a week, so if our spouses hoped to see us before Christmas day, it was really their only chance. I left my wife alone with her work as I escorted the nun to a pile of toys I had set aside for the kids she was responsible for, but as we spoke, something felt amiss. I excused myself for a moment and walked back toward my wife from an alternate route, only to find a large man approaching her from behind, seemingly smelling her hair, with a second in tow just behind him. As I began to shout, the second of the two grabbed one of the large bags of toys and made for the door – and that’s when I ordered them both to stop where they were, as if I was armed – though I conspicuously was not.
They didn’t, of course, and for a split second, I worried that I was about to end up in a fight surrounded by donated toys, an imposter nun, and my wife. Instead, they dropped the bags and made a run for it, their sweet little nun following behind, suddenly significantly spryer than she appeared before hand. They loaded up into a crappy van and drove off as I called the police and my wife gathered the toys they’d scattered during their hasty exit.
That same year, one of the secondary storage sites for a subsidiary command was robbed, and one of the volunteers we had working in our own warehouse got caught stealing toys she then returned to Walmart and Toys R Us for store credit. Even the people we worked with every day, counting out toys for needy kids in hospitals and foster care, were willing to steal from the pile in the interest of making a quick buck.
It’s important to note that these people are the exception, not the rule – and the overwhelming majority of Marines and volunteers that participate in Toys for Tots are there for the same reason I was: because they want to help make Christmas just a little bit better for kids in need.
Unfortunately, Toys for Tots also taught me a great deal about humanity – and how some people are so blinded by their own selfishness that they can’t help but sully such a positive thing.
I still donate toys to Toys for Tots each year, but I’m aware now that there’s a chance my donation may not make it into the hands of a needy child. There’s a chance, all be it a small one, that it’ll instead be stolen and returned for a few bucks, or that some family that doesn’t actually need the help will take advantage of a system designed to aid those suffering from tough times.
But I don’t care.
That risk is worth it – because the few times I was actually able to be present to see the excited look on the faces of sick kids in the hospital as they opened a gift they wouldn’t otherwise receive, it made the long hours, the dirty warehouse, and the slimeball thieves all worth dealing with.
Being a Marine is about fighting wars, but in a broader sense, it’s about helping to shape the nation. We defend our country from its enemies, we honor those who served before us, and when given the chance, we’ll work for 20 hours straight to help get a pile of toys under the tree of a kid who needs it.
It’s just one more reason why I’ll always be proud of my time in uniform, and my time serving this great nation.
Images courtesy of the author