As I’ve discussed before, serving on the Inspector/Instructor staff responsible for training Marine Corps Reservists comes with a slew of secondary responsibilities that, despite their “secondary” moniker, actually make up a good portion of what active duty Marines assigned to Marine Forces Reserve actually do.  Primary among these tasks are funeral honors and casualty notification responsibilities, which take precedent over just about all else, but another, less morose, task also awaits active duty and active reserve Marines that fall under the 4th Marine Division: Toys for Tots.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Toys for Tots is a Reserve function, and as such, us grubby active duty guys aren’t supposed to get our mitts anywhere near it.  Unfortunately, managing two or three months of toy collection, sorting, and distribution is a full-time effort, and budgetary constraints mandate that any funds that might be used to pay reservists for extra active duty work go toward deployment workups and legitimate training… so if toys are going to make it from our collection boxes and into the hands of needy kids, you’d better believe there are some active duty guys making it happen behind the scenes.  In my case, there were between two and three of us, and we devoted somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 hours a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas to trying our best to make under privileged kids’ Christmases just a little bit better.

Those aren’t sour grapes – I asked to assist in the Toys for Tots program.  I grew up in the kind of house that could only afford turkey sandwiches on Thanksgiving for the better part of my childhood, where Christmas presents were often used toys purchased from Goodwill or given to us by family, and where Christmas itself was always considered a big deal.  To be honest, it wasn’t even always my desire to get gifts into the hands of kids that drove me to want to help, so much as it was the awful memory of my parents’ embarrassment when I was finally old enough to ask why our Christmases weren’t quite like those enjoyed by other families.

Toys for Tots is a genuinely good program with genuinely good intentions – the problem is that people, by and large, are awful, despicable creatures, and the system put into place to protect the program from said creatures often prevents you from doing what you feel is right.  During my two years managing Toys for Tots for Central Massachusetts, I didn’t meet very many needy kids, but I definitely met my fair share of scam artists, criminals, and bureaucracy.

The first thing you need to know about Toys for Tots is that Marines don’t actually distribute any toys to needy children whatsoever.  Headquarters Marine Corps determined that left too much liability in the hands of Uncle Sam, and instead, the toys we collect are given en masse to other organizations that have been vetted by the Marine Corps and determined to be reputable.  This layer of protection is important, because it helps those of us on the ground dispel the guilt of having to tell an organization no… the problem is, it also bars us from telling individuals in need yes – which is why the worst thing that can ever happen to a guy like me was to have a needy family show up at the warehouse door.

Central Massachusetts is ripe with old, unused factories, and we rented the same one each year to store, sort, and manage the massive amounts of toys we took in from individual donations and large companies like LEGO and Tyco.  Most of the work is actually lugging around boxes, dividing toys by intended gender and age group, and maintaining precise records of what you take in, and what you send out.  Most people might be surprised to learn that the majority of what makes Toys for Tots work has nothing to do with wearing your dress blues, and instead looks a lot more like loading quad cons for a deployment.

The job did come with some killer indoor parking though.

The problems arise when organizations apply to distribute the toys we collect and are ultimately turned down.  That was the case when a woman, who claimed to be a nun, approached me at the warehouse one day.  Our facility, deep in a run down industrial portion of Worcester, didn’t see much foot traffic, so I was surprised to see her in my doorway as I hurriedly counted another shipment of Nerf Guns we couldn’t give away (Toys for Tots can’t distribute any toy weapons).

She explained that her Church had been turned down by Headquarters Marine Corps and that she believed it was because she struggled with the English on the application (she primarily spoke Spanish).  I commiserated with her, and to be honest, she seemed sincere, so I told her I’d talk things over with my First Sergeant and see if there was anything we could do.  Technically, giving her anything would be a violation of my orders, but I didn’t see any harm in running the request up my chain of command.