More Than Just Toys

In keeping with my campaign to bring only good news to the Week-Ender, I want to tell you about some good people who are gearing up for a great program called Toys For Tots.

The true meaning of the holidays, one toy at a time.

It’s hard for me to imagine that there is anybody in the country who doesn’t at least know a little about Toys For Tots; but then I realize that with 315 million people in the U.S. there still may be a few who haven’t heard about it.

Toys For Tots is a program that collects toys and distributes them to disadvantaged kids on Christmas.

It started in 1947 when Diane Hendricks, wife of Marine Corps Reserve Major Bill Hendricks, hand-made a doll and asked the Major to drop it off to an organization that would give it to a needy child.

Major Hendricks discovered that there wasn’t such an organization, and when he told his wife, she “suggested” he start one (we know who was in command of that household J).

The 1947 pilot program he developed was so successful that the Marine Corps adopted the program in 1948 and expanded it nationwide in every community that had a Marine Corps Reserve center. Today, it is an official mission of the Marine Corps Reserve.

Toys For Tots has had a long and colorful history, picking up supporters along the way such as Bob Hope, John Wayne, Doris Day, Kenny Rogers, Tim Allen, and millions of other Americans.

Suffice it to say, it has been very successful; that one handmade doll in 1947 has since led to collection and distribution totaling more than 452 million toys to more than 209 million needy children at Christmas time.

Each year starting in the fall, Marines (past, present, and future) and supporters in cities across the country get organized, gear up, and prepare for the mission—to get new, unwrapped toys or monetary donations.

Starting around late November, they begin standing outside supporting businesses, attending public events, and doing myriad other actions, all with that one mission in mind.

My now 17-year-old son and I stand duty on this mission every year; he’s been doing it with me since he was a toddler. I like having my son helping me--it’s good bonding time, and he learns the spirit of volunteering and giving, as well.

I’ve got to say, you haven’t really absorbed the meaning of the Christmas season until you’ve stood shifts outside stores talking with people and collecting toys.

This is where I first learned that there indeed are a few people who don’t know about Toys For Tots. Countless times I’ve had people ask me, “So, what are you doing out here?” even though we are surrounded by Marine Corps emblems and banners announcing the program.

I’ve gotten down a pretty succinct 30-second explanation of the 65-year-old effort; I’ve discovered you have to keep such explanations in “sound bites” or you lose people.

But once people understand, invariably they will come out of the store, or even come back later, with one or more toys.

Last year, I had one guy drive up in a newer-model Jaguar. He asked what sort of toys we needed. It varies from time to time, depending on what has been donated to that point. I gave him a laundry list of items we were looking for. He thanked me and drove off; I figured I’d seen the last of him.

Later that day, he drove back to our drop-off point and started unloading the Jag. Every square inch of the interior had a toy stuffed into it--it was obvious he’d been to several different stores.  I was busy talking with someone else, and when I turned around, he had finished and had driven off.

I’ve always wondered what his story was. Here was a guy who obviously had resources--or at least a Jag and a credit card with a balance. I wonder if he’d been a Marine. I wonder if he was “paying forward” some kindness from his past.

Why people choose to give is a question that keeps me volunteering year after year to stand post for Toys For Tots.

One year, an elderly lady walking very slowly with a cane passed me going into a local department store where I was standing post.

I started to give her my 30-second script, but she interrupted me and said, “Young man, you don’t have to tell me about it, I am well aware of what you’re doing,” and kept on ambling into the store.

Thirty minutes later, she came back out leaning on a shopping cart filled with toys. She started slowly unloading, and as I helped her I asked, “Ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking, what makes you want to give these toys?”

She proceeded to tell me about her deceased Marine husband who had served in WWII and who had helped with Toys For Tots every year for as long as she could remember.

She said he had died 10 years before, and she has made sure that each year she comes to donate toys in his memory. This was her own, personal memorial to her husband.

Parents often use Toys For Tots as a way of teaching their children to appreciate good fortune and realize there are other children who aren’t so lucky.

Last year, a mother approached me with three adorable triplet girls about 6 years old. She asked me if I’d explain to them why we do Toys For Tots each year. I took my time explaining it to them and answering their questions.

Then she gave them each 20 dollars, said they could buy whatever toys they wanted and come back to put it in our boxes. They all marched into the store.

Soon after, they all marched back out. Each girl had one or several items--all girly stuff, of course--that they carefully placed in the boxes. One of them nearly brought me to tears when she said to me, “Please tell those little girls we are sad they can’t have a lot of toys, but we hope these will make them happy.”

From the mouths of babes…that wasn’t actually a tear rolling down my cheek, my eyes just watered up from the cold wind…

I realized then that there’s more to Toys For Tots than just toys; the effort represents the very essence of what makes good people good--the desire to give to others.

Regardless of race, creed, color, religion, or any of the other artificial divisions we humans manage to use as wedges to common courtesy, mutual respect and kindness, good people want to help others. I choose to believe that 99 percent of humans are of this persuasion and it’s the other 1 percent who cause things to go off track.

So, this Christmas season, be part of the 99 percent. If you see some Marine-types standing outside your local businesses in front of Toys For Tots signs, stop and say hi, find out what kind of items they need, get them, and drop them in the box. Giving has never been so easy or gratifying.

You can find out lots more about Toys For Tots on their website, .

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Peachtree City, Ga.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email