Toys, not guns, for these marines

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. The place is busier than Boston's Logan Airport the day before Thanksgiving.

The hectic pace doesn't faze the volunteers, says James Cavanaugh, a retiree who keeps things moving smoothly.

Bend, lift, stack. Bend, lift, bag. Boxes of newly arrived toys stand in piles nearly 12 feet tall, and somewhere, always, a toy is talking or giving orders: "Vroom." "Put your hard hat on." "My name is Elmo."

The strange cacophony can be annoying, says Cpl. Jeremy Rezendes, on loan from Devens. "You hear Elmo all day long. It gets to you after a couple of hours."

The seniors cruise along despite the noise, working as fast as people 30 years their junior. Their commitment to helping children and to the Marine Corps fuels them hour after hour, five days a week.

"We're a bunch of diehards," says Paul Fay, who's in his early 70s. "Every year we say we're not coming in, but here we are."

Part of the attraction is the camaraderie. The marines are not just a brotherhood, they say, they're a family - one that loves to tease one another. The friendly banter never stops.

"Bubblehead," the lone sailor in the group, gets razzed constantly.

But all the volunteers keep in mind their deeper purpose. "It's important [for me] to give back to those who helped me when I had three kids and was desperate," says Priscilla Fowler, who's retired from State Street Bank.

Of the 479 Toys for Tots chapters nationwide, 184 are run by Marine units, whose coordinators have a turnover rate of 33 to 50 percent each year, due to transfers and changes in duty. The Boston group will have a new coordinator next year, too, but Carpenter isn't worried.

"The new guy will have to learn the ropes," he says, "but [the retired Marines] know what's to be done."

Other Toys for Tots chapters - smaller programs that tend to serve more rural areas - are run by former Marines or civilians who want to help. They report to the Toys for Tots Foundation in Quantico, Va. The creation of the foundation, in the late 1980s, has been one of the biggest advances Toys for Tots has made in its 57 years. It trains program leaders, raises funds all year long, and also provides toys and money when local coffers run dry. Each year it contributes $30 million to $40 million in additional toys nationwide.

"I get calls from master sergeants and gunnery sergeants, men who are supposed to be the meanest guys in world, the toughest fighters, and they'll say, 'You've got to get me more toys!' " says Bill Grein, vice president of marketing and development for the Toys for Tots Foundation. "You can hear the emotion in their voices when they say, 'We still have children to help.' "

Toys are all new, not secondhand

In the late 1970s, a new-toys-only rule was instituted. Before that, used toys were accepted, and reservists would refurbish or repair them. But that was too time- consuming.

An equally important reason for the change was the emotional ramifications of secondhand gifts, says Mr. Grein. "A child, just because he or she is poor, doesn't need to get a castoff toy. We felt it was very important to teach them that they are as good as everyone else and they deserve a new toy just like every other child."

That message has definitely come through, says Saf Caruso of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services Kids Fund, which receives toys from the program. "The Toys for Tots program shows these children that even while they go through difficult circumstances, they are considered very special and worthy. They know they are thought about and remembered during the holidays."

That comment would delight the Boston group, which will have to work at full speed for the next two weeks. That's a sacrifice they're willing to make. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They know how crucial a sense of hope is.

They don't even mind that their mission seems to be with them all the time.

During a recent trip to a coffee shop, a mother and daughter spied Carpenter's Toys for Tots jacket and asked him to take two bags of toys they had in the car. His own car was nearly full already, but he accepted the donations.

The young girl was impressed and told her mother: "That's one of Santa's elves in disguise."

Carpenter just smiled and said, "Shhh, don't let anybody know our secret."

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