Toys for Tots spreads joy of holiday season

Bill Grein becomes pretty popular around this time of year. Along with thousands of other volunteers around the country, every Christmas he plays Santa to children in need through the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, spreading the magic of the holidays to children who would otherwise go without. Last year’s haul was 16.4 million toys, distributed to 7.2 million children. This year, need has grown again.

Toys for Tots has maintained the same mission since its inception in 1947: to bring the joy of the Christmas holiday season to our nation’s less fortunate children by collecting toys, books, games and other items as gifts.

“It’s not just a toy. It is important because, let’s face it, Christmas in a child’s eye is the most significant day of the year other than maybe a birthday,” said Bill Grein, vice president of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. “So that makes it important to a child to be remembered … A child can feel left out if he or she goes back to school and kids are talking about ‘I got this’ and ‘I got that’ or ‘I am wearing my new whatever,’ and that child had nothing under the tree. We just think the confidence, the self-esteem issue is so important with a child that age.”

Toys for Tots comes from humble beginnings, when a wife of a Marine made a doll and wanted to find an agency that would donate it to an underprivileged child. After searching high and low, her husband turned up empty-handed. He approached his commanding officer, who instantly declared the Marines should hold a toy drive for children in their local community of Los Angeles. The result: 5,000 toys.

“The Marine Corps thought it was such a great idea, reaching out into the community from where our Marines come from and live and work and giving back to them,” Grein said. “So we decided that we would develop it nationwide.” And the next year they did.

Since then, it has come a long way. Growing each year, the nonprofit has distributed toys to more than 202 million children and boasts 730 units collecting toys across the country, each responsible for a handful of counties.

In fact, it has grown so huge it has become a business and needs to be managed by a foundation, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, established 21 years ago, which serves as the fundraising and business office with 16 employees.

“It’s no longer Marines just helping kids around the corner and in the neighborhood,” Grein said. “More folks found out about our program and needed help, and more folks found out and wanted to help, so we started raising more and more toys, and it grew to point we needed organization to help run it.”

And it is a good thing the program is growing, because the number of children in need is rising as well. Three years ago, there were 13 million children living at or below the poverty line. In 2010, it increased to 15 million, and figures indicate that in 2011 it will be 16.4 million. Or, as Grein noted, more than double the amount that Toys for Tots is able to serve each year.

Grein reports knocking on people’s doors, asking if they have not one toy, but truckloads of toys.

“Marines will call and say ‘Hey do you have any extra toys? We don’t have enough.’ And we never have enough. We always run out of toys before we run out of children. That’s when I become part Dr. Phil and part Dallas cheerleader and encourage them to keep going and keep working and remember that it is not your fault if you run out of toys. You are only as successful as your community is generous.”

Marines, Grein said, are overachievers. Given a mission, they want to carry it out. Every year, he receives the same type of calls from passionate Marines.

“You can hear the emotion in their voices when they say, ‘Hey, I need you to send me more toys,’ and I tell them we are out, and there’s not going to be any more. And they say ‘It can’t be. I still have kids to help,’” Grein said.

Some of the most coveted toys are dolls, remote-controlled cars, watches, and iPods and other electronics. Gifts for teens and preteens are harder to come by and are especially appreciated. The charity tries to keep toy costs at a certain level to be fair to all the children (usually under $30).

“It’s not fair to hand one child a bike and then the next child a yoyo or something ... you still get a nice toy certainly,” the vice president said.

Popular items such as bikes are often awarded through lotteries.

Many toys also have further value. Books are educational, games can enhance the mind and sports equipment promotes physical fitness.

For those who want to donate, simply purchase a toy, check the website for drop-off locations and deliver happiness to a child this year. Then sit back and feel proud of your contribution. But be sure to do so soon: Things wind down a week before Christmas.

You may also help out by donating funds to either the national website or your local Toys for Tots branch. Cash is often needed to even out toy donations across age and gender categories. Believing the money is better spent on kids, Toys for Tots watches its money and uses volunteer help, which means 98 percent of funds go directly to its mission of collecting toys.

“It is being remembered, it’s breaking that poverty syndrome that children have that someone cares, the magic of the holiday season hasn’t passed them by … we think it helps. It is not the answer to the world’s problems, but it is a step in the right direction,” Grein declared.

To get involved, visit

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LadyLUX via Toys for Tots

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