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The Seeds of a Toys for Tots Tradition

‘Tis the season for the steady ring of the Salvation Army bell, near the bright red kettle, at the entrance of every department store. It’s time for holiday music coming through the speakers (formerly the car radio, now streaming through our smartphones or Alexa). 

This time of year also marks the return of the giant cardboard boxes covered with the familiar train and Marine Corps Toys for Tots logo. You can find them at the front of banks, village stores, grocery shops, and even big-box stores on occasion. 

As a child, the anticipation of Christmas was nearly my undoing. From the arrival of the Sears and Roebuck Wish Book – a toy-and-treasure-filled tome that weighed heavy on my lap – to the last moments of trying to keep my eyes open on Christmas Eve, I was completely engrossed in the happenings of the holiday. Some family traditions fell by the wayside as my sister and I grew up, but some survived the years. One of those traditions is buying something for the Toys for Tots collection box. 

The beginnings of the Marine Corps Toys for Tots can be traced back to 1947, a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve major, and his industrious wife. Diane Hendricks handcrafted a doll and sent her husband out to donate it to an agency serving children in need at Christmastime. Major Bill Hendricks attempted to do her bidding, but returned home unsuccessful, informing her that no such agency existed in the Los Angeles area. Not to be deterred, Diane declared it was now up to him to start such an agency. So, he did just that. With the help of his USMC Reserve unit, 5,000 toys for children in need were collected that Christmas. The following year, it became a national community action program, and in 1991, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation became an official nonprofit charity. 

When we were children, my mother would take us to buy a toy for the Toys for Tots. I have clear memories of having a “budget” of two or three dollars, and being required to choose something we would like to receive ourselves. I remember wandering the narrow aisles of Woolworth’s on Main Street in Keene, looking for just the right gift for an unknown little girl. I remember always looking for books but never finding them, and often settling for an imposter Barbie doll or a jigsaw puzzle. 

In hindsight, I know there were years that our parents were unable to give us all they would have liked. There were times when my sister and I wrote our letters to Santa Claus asking for the trendy and popular items so many children were wishing for, only to have my parents already know Santa’s sleigh wouldn’t be carrying those things to our little house in Winchester. 

There would be no Cabbage Patch Kid, or Atari system. We’d never wake up to discover a digital watch or double tape deck boom box. We wouldn’t find a television for our room or a pair of downhill skis. Every year I would ask Santa Claus for a big brother, and every year I woke up disappointed. 

But I always found something wonderful under that tree, even if it wasn’t a lot. And my sister and I always knew we had done something to make sure someone else woke up to find something wonderful, too. I think that might have been the greatest gift they gave us in the end. 

One of the best things about not getting a lot is that it makes it easy to remember what was there. There was the year we got sturdy brown Sorel boots with bright yellow laces, exactly like our dad’s! A couple of years later I got a soccer ball (still one of the greatest gifts ever) and my sister got a cowboy hat and boots. We stumbled out into the living room once to find two gigantic boxes with blue velvet bean bags inside. And, one morning there stood the handmade wall racks from our dad, built to hold our collectibles. My rock collection and tiny ceramic horses fit perfectly. 

After I grew up and moved out on my own, my parents eventually began donating money and time to the Toys for Tots cause, rather than just adding gifts to the collection boxes. When I was a child, I thought we donated to the Toys for Tots because my dad had been a Marine. I thought it might be something they had to do, even when they no longer wore the uniform. But now I know it was a way to teach us about sharing with others who have less, and caring for those who get lost in the shuffle of life.  

At my dad’s memorial gathering, there were two full tables of USMC veterans who knew him through his work on the Toys for Tots drives every year. It felt good to have them introduce themselves and tell me how much they admired him. My dad would have been incredibly uncomfortable with both the praise and recognition. But, I think he would have been pleased that my mother continued to donate to Toys for Tots until her own death five years later. 

I’ll head to the store this week and choose some gifts for that big cardboard box with a train on it. I’ll give myself a budget, choose toys I would’ve liked, and know that when Chrtistmas morning arrives it will not only make some children happy, but my parents proud as well. 

I’d like to think that a tradition started by a Marine and his wife in 1947 continues in some small way through me, more than 75 years later, because of the influence of another Marine and his wife. 

Source : New Hampshire Bulletin