Toys for Tots: creating 7 million smiles a year

A Marine Corps Reserve effort helps families.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
HOLIDAY HELPERS: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (r.) appeared with US Marines at the kickoff of the annual Toys for Tots donation drive Nov. 24.

Throughout November and December, Master Sgt. Bill Garvey spends his days sorting through a sea of toys. Tonka trucks, Barbie dolls, and books pile up. Garvey’s job is to make sure that they reach thousands of children in the Boston area in time for the holidays.

“The most valuable thing is that we get to put a smile on a lot of children’s faces who wouldn’t otherwise have a toy on Christmas,” he says.

After returning from service in Vietnam, where he spent much of his time teaching Vietnamese Boy Scouts crafts and wilderness skills, Garvey wanted to keep helping children in need. Toys for Tots, a foundation that distributes holiday toys to children in families that fall at or below the poverty line, allows him to do so.

Serving as a Toys for Tots volunteer in Boston for 26 years, he has seen the foundation grow exponentially. The Boston program used to hand toys directly to families; now it relies on churches, police associations, and other groups to distribute them.

“We now get involved with so many hundreds of thousands of toys that we just can’t get out there and do it ourselves anymore,” he says of the Boston program, just one of 760 across the United States.

Toys for Tots began in Los Angeles in 1947. The wife of a young Marine officer made a Raggedy Ann doll and asked her husband to donate it to a place that distributed toys to families in need at Christmas.

The marine couldn’t find such a group. So he began one with his fellow marines and distributed 5,000 toys to families in California that holiday season. Today, Toys for Tots remains inseparably linked to the Marines. In 1995, the US secretary of Defense approved the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation as an official activity and mission of the Marine Corps Reserve.

In the past decade, Toys for Tots has distributed toys to about 7 million children every year. “There are 14.7 million children living in poverty, so if we’re reaching 7 million we’re not even halfway there yet, but at least we’re making a dent,” says Bill Grein, a retired marine who now serves as vice president of marketing and development for Toys for Tots.

Large toy and book companies, including Toys R Us, Scholastic Inc., and Hasbro Inc., have become sponsors and help Toys for Tots amass gifts for children. But demand still outweighs supply.

Mr. Grein works to ensure that if a local Toys for Tots program runs out of toys, more will be waiting in the wings. “We know they’re going to run out of toys before they run out of children in need,” he says. “So we make sure they have a lot of toys to supplement what they collect in the communities.”

Toys for Tots wants to help parents as much as it helps children. “We want to give the toys to moms and dads who are down on their luck, ill, or out of work.” Grein says. “We want them to be the hero in the children’s eyes.”

In recent years, the staff of The Christian Science Monitor in Boston has collected toys, delivered them to Toys for Tots for distribution, and volunteered to pack toys in the local warehouse.

Toys for Tots can only be as successful as its donors are generous, Grein says.

“Sometimes we get calls from gunnery sergeants running a program – and these guys are supposed to be the meanest guys in the world – and they ask for more toys, and you just hear the emotion in their voices: ‘There have to be more toys. We’ve got more families to help.’ ”

• To find Toys for Tots drop-off locations, make a monetary donation, or request a toy for your child, visit

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