How one Marine’s dream became a foundation for hope
On a chilly night in Sunrise, Florida, last December, thousands of hockey fans crowded into ticket lines for the Florida Panthers game. Among the mass, the distinctive dress blue uniforms of three U.S. Marines stood out.
Standing his post next to a large Toys For Tots collection box, Sgt. Marshall Kulik noticed a young mother handing a toy to her son. Barely 5 years old, the child approached the Marines and smiled, dropping his donation into the box and beaming with pride.
“Those are the best moments,” Kulik says about serving as an assistant Toys For Tots coordinator with the 4th Civil Affairs Group in Hialeah, Florida. “It’s really touching to know there are kids out there who are learning to give to children who are less fortunate. The underprivileged kids wouldn’t get anything for Christmas if it wasn’t for the donations, and that’s an important lesson.”
Every year, members of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve collect millions of toys for underprivileged children during their annual Toys For Tots collection drives. While holiday collection drives have become commonplace across the nation, there was once a time when no such programs existed.
Among the early pioneers of holiday toy drives was Marine Col. Bill Hendricks, founder of Toys For Tots. In December 1947, then-Maj. Hendricks watched his wife, Diane, lovingly craft a rag doll out of yarn in their Los Angeles home.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to give this to some poor youngster who isn’t going to have a good Christmas?” Diane asked.
Inspired by his wife’s generous spirit, Hendricks looked for a charity that could make Diane’s words reality. After finding no such charity in Los Angeles, Diane’s vision became Hendricks’ mission as a Marine.
He pitched the idea to another Marine officer, and the men took the proposal to their superiors, asking to launch an annual toy drive run by Marine Corps Forces Reserve.
With the command’s approval and less than two weeks until Christmas, Hendricks—who also worked as the director of public relations for Warner Bros.—reached out to his contacts in the entertainment industry to promote the fledgling program. They gathered 5,000 toys and distributed them to local children, working until 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
The following year, Hendricks’ close friend designed the three-car train graphic that serves as the program’s logo. That friend’s name was Walt Disney.
The same year, the Marine Corps adopted the program as a national community-action campaign, collecting and distributing toys to needy children across the nation.
“Marines are all about leading from the front, upholding traditions and being part of our community,” says Toys For Tots National Program Coordinator Maj. Ismael Lara. “Helping the less fortunate is part of that, and what Maj. Hendricks and his wife started has persisted for more than 70 years.”
According to its website, Toys For Tots has grown into a massive operation. Today, 800 Toys For Tots coordinators manage more than 40,000 Marines, Marine Corps League members, veterans and volunteers who support the annual campaigns.
In response to its massive growth and appeal, the program evolved in 1991, becoming the Toys For Tots Foundation—a national non-profit organization governed by a board of retired Marines.
The foundation maintains a strong partnership with Marine Corps Forces Reserve and carries forward Hendricks’ legacy, collecting and distributing tens of thousands of toys to underprivileged children every year.
Kulik says his unit—the 4th Civil Affairs Group—received more than 80,000 requests for toys last year. Thanks to the help of countless volunteers, the Marines were able to meet those needs.
“Having volunteer support helps the program in so many ways,” Kulik said. “We are a small staff, and we don’t mind working late into the night to ensure success. But having the volunteers to help us at the warehouse, sorting and packing toys and shipping them where they need to go, really takes a lot of the pressure off and frees us to do the community-engagement events, be at the drop boxes and really help promote the toy drives.”
Marine Reserve units continue to receive record-breaking requests for toys each year.
Recognizing that poverty drives the high demand, Toys For Tots has expanded its mission several times. In 1980, the charity established the Toys For Tots Native American Program.
“The Native American children served by the program are some of the most underprivileged kids in our country,” Lara says.
The proud legacy of the Navajo code talkers and their strong relationship with the Corps helped illuminate the need in Native communities, according to Lara.
The code talkers were members of the Navajo Nation who served as Marine radio operators in World War II and used their language to safely communicate sensitive information over the radio. Enemy forces were never able to crack the Navajo “code.”
While the Navajo Marines’ service is well documented and widely known—thanks in part to the 2002 film “Windtalkers”—Lara is quick to point out that countless Native Americans from tribes across the country have served honorably and admirably in the Marine Corps for decades.
Until 1980, Toys For Tots operated primarily at the local level, collecting and distributing toys to needy children in the communities where they were donated.
The lack of large population centers surrounding most Native reservations meant the program wasn’t serving thousands of Native children throughout the country. Today, Toys For Tots’ Native American Program supplies toys and books to more than 120,000 children living on reservations across the country.
In 2008, the foundation evolved further with the creation of the Toys For Tots Literacy Program. Through the program, the foundation collects and distributes books to more than 14 million children each year.
“The literacy program provides us an opportunity to develop young minds,” Lara says. “When we invest in the education of young people as early as possible, we are investing in our future and helping to end poverty. It’s a worthy goal and something we are very proud to be part of.”
Kulik, who has volunteered with the program for the past nine years, says Toys For Tots provides an immeasurable sense of meaning and pride for the Marines and volunteers who commit themselves to the mission of spreading goodwill to those who need it most.
“I wish we could hand out the toys to the kids ourselves,” he says. “But for us the most satisfying part is when we get to see photos of the kids receiving their toys. Their expressions when they get a bike or an action figure or what have you—it makes the program really exciting and memorable.”
In the 71 years since its inception, Toys For Tots has collected and distributed more than 530 million toys to more than 244 million needy children.
It has inspired numerous other charitable organizations to launch their own toy drives and fundraising efforts for the nation’s most vulnerable children.
With its efforts in the Native American Program and 41 million book donations to the Toys For Tots Literacy Program, the Marine Corps continues to lead in the national effort to ensure every child’s needs are met during the holidays.
And it all started with a rag doll made of yarn, a couple’s charitable spirit and a determined Marine.
For information about Toys For Tots, including how to make a donation, visit www.toysfortots.org.