Toys, Not Guns, for These Marines

Article excerpt

At the Toys for Tots warehouse in Boston, there's a military campaign of sorts going on. The workers here - retirees in their 70s and 80s who once served in the Marines or reserves - would call it a battle of hope vs. despair.

Or they would if they had time to talk. But with another truckload of toys arriving, the crew must focus on the task at hand. Bend, lift, toss. Bend, lift, toss. The 25-member crew, assisted by 15 part-time volunteers, many of whom are also retirees, has only two more weeks to meet its goal of distributing 300,000 toys to disadvantaged local children.

Most people would expect to see 40 young enlistees working here, since Toys for Tots is a program of the Marine Corps Reserves. But with the war in Iraq, marines are often in short supply nationwide. Even in places where units have not been activated, silver-haired "troops" are becoming more important to get the toys out.

"I would have to literally shut down in order to staff this," says Sgt. Maj. Kip Carpenter of the 1st Battalion 25th Marines in Devens, Mass. Sergeant Carpenter, who coordinates the Boston program, spares as many men as he can, sending two or three to the warehouse each day. Others pick up donations and appear in dress blues at Toys for Tots events. The more appearances they make, the more donations they receive.

Last year, however, most of Carpenter's men were abroad, so the warehouse crew had to pick up the slack.

"They do all the work," says Carpenter of the retirees. "They're the real story here."

That's a story few have heard. Most Americans don't even know how the program started or why the Marines feel it relates to national defense.

"We're protecting the future of the country," says Carpenter. The toys bring hope to the youngest and most vulnerable Americans. "Being a marine is not about guns, it's not about tanks, it's about taking care of people, supporting the person on the right or left of us, whether in the neighborhood or in battle."

Toys for Tots was founded in 1947 by Bill Hendricks, a reservist who worked in public relations in Los Angeles. His wife, Diane, had made a Raggedy Ann doll, and she gave him an order: Find an organization that will give it to a needy child.

Mr. Hendricks looked around, but couldn't find such a charity. His wife then insisted that he start one, and he did.

Los Angeles reservists collected 5,000 toys that year. In 1948 the program spread to several other cities, including Boston. The method of collecting - placing boxes at participating businesses, firehouses, etc. - has remained constant over the years, but the volume of toys has grown exponentially.

Last Christmas, Toys for Tots had its best drive ever: 15 million toys distributed to 6-1/2 million children nationwide. The Marines hope to do better this year.

The Boston group, like its counterparts across America, began its campaign Oct. 15. That's when Kay Carpenter and several other women - all former members of the USMC - started answering phone calls and sending out request forms to social agencies and community groups that need toys for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day.

The women will eventually process requests from about 300 organizations. They also answer questions from potential donors and send out posters to hundreds of businesses that want a collection box.

The phones never stop ringing.

One floor above them, the warehouse crew surveys stock from last year. (Many donations come in the week after Christmas and are stored.) Because most new donations won't be received until Dec. 15, $100,000 worth of playthings are purchased to help fill early requests. More than 100 orders leave the warehouse by mid-November, including 7,000 toys for the state Department of Social Services.

The sound of talking toys

As the trickle of donations becomes a stream, every pair of hands is needed to unload truck after truck, move the toys upstairs, and then sort and bag them. …