Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Azemar King saw how the nation swept in to help him and his fellow New Orleanians when Hurricane Katrina devastated their city in 2005.
So this year, he's convinced the American public will step in during the last few days before Christmas to ensure the Marine Corps Reserve's annual Toys for Tots drive doesn't leave a single needy child empty-handed.
King, national coordinator for the program at Marine Forces Reserve headquarters in New Orleans, concedes that a dire economy has caused donations to drop, even as need increases.
"Everybody is hurting this year, but they are still generous and doing what they can across the board," he said. "But there's a big gap there to fill."
Retired Marine Corps Maj. Bill Grein, vice president for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation that manages the program's fund- and toy-raising activities and supplements local collection efforts, said this year is tougher than most.
Fewer toys are being dropped off at most of the 600-plus collection sites around the country. Private cash donations have decreased locally as well, and corporate cash donations to the Toys for Tots Foundation are down 12 to 15 percent from last year, Grein said.
The good news, he said, is that corporate toy donations are keeping pace with last year's levels, and several corporations have made "great donations" to help fill the shortfall. Hasbro Inc., JAKKS Pacific Inc., Toys"R"Us Inc., Best Buy, The UPS Store and Build-a-Bear Workshop Inc. all made big toy donations, he said.
With less than a week to Christmas, and as more people turn to the Toys for Tots drive this year for help, Grein expressed hope that the program can keep pace with demand.
Last year, Toys for Tots distributed 16.7 million toys to 7.5 million children. But with 13 million U.S. children at or below the poverty level, Grein said that "leaves a lot still to be reached."
At the Marine Corps Reserve headquarters, King refuses to believe this year's campaign will fall short.
"We're very confident that we are going to have mission accomplishment. That's always first for the Marine Corps," he said. "In my heart of hearts, I hope and I believe that this week, some angel is going to call the foundation" and make a big donation.
Meanwhile, King is convinced that as toy shortages get more publicity, "people are going to step up" and dig a little deeper into their pockets to help.
King experienced that kind of generosity firsthand when he and his fellow New Orleans residents were displaced following Hurricane Katrina.
"I've seen what people will do when they see a need," he said. "And I think the American public is going to rally and do their part between now and Christmas and get us the toys or the money so we can change that into a toy and make sure that every child gets a toy for Christmas."
Marine Corps Reserve volunteers are busy working toward that goal as they get donated toys to charitable groups across the country. With some of the regular reserve volunteers serving combat deployments, active-duty Marines have volunteered to serve as reinforcements, King said.
In addition, veteran Marines and other community members are serving as Santa's helpers, collecting and distributing toys on behalf of the program.
This year marks the 60 anniversary of the nationwide Toys for Tots program. The program got its start in 1947 as a much smaller effort when Marine Corps Maj. Bill Hendricks and a group of fellow Marine Corps reservists in Los Angeles collected and distributed 5,000 toys to needy children.
The pilot project proved so successful that the Marine Corps adopted the program in 1948, expanding it into a nationwide campaign. Since then, Marines have distributed more than 370 million toys to more than 173 needy children through Toys for Tots.
King called Toys for Tots a great outreach effort that connects the Marine Corps with communities across the country. "This is that personal touch that the Marine Corps gives back to the community that has allowed us to build such a great repertoire and reputation with the American people," he said.
"They love the Marine Corps," he continued. "We win wars and we have this great program that touches the lives of millions."
But King said he and his fellow Marines are touched personally by the program as well.
"Volunteers come in and they give and they give and they give. And it is a thankless job until you see that child receive that toy, and then it all makes sense," he said. "Seeing the eyes and the reaction of those kids -- you just can't put a price tag on it.
"And that's why you come back year after year to give this program 110 percent, and why Toys for Tots has become as successful as it is," King said. "It is the purest form of charity."
Information about where to request or drop off toys and how to make an online donation is available on the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation Web site.
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
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