Marine veteran John Muller is constantly moving this time of year, picking up toys at the 20 stops on his route and delivering them to the Salvation Army in San Luis Obispo.
But despite his efforts, he’ll never actually see the children who receive the toys.
“I don’t see what happens, but I know there’s joy out there,” said Muller, a retired psychiatric nurse and father of two grown children. “The main thing is to get the children these toys and a little hope.”
While most of us see those Toys for Tots boxes fill up at various businesses around the county, few see the 650 volunteers – a cadre of locally-based Santa’s helpers -- who work to get toys to those in need. In troubled economic times, even more have stepped up to help kids enjoy a little something special under the tree this holiday.
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“This year we have more people volunteering,” said Barbara Wolcott, executive director for the Central Coast Toys for Tots, which was launched by the Marine Corps. League, Detachment 680, in 2000. “We have more people saying, ‘Where can I donate?’ But at the same time, we also have more people saying, ‘Where can I get toys?’”
While greater awareness of Toys for Tots surely contributes to the increased inquiries, no doubt the suffering economy has also caused a spike.
“I would say there’s probably at least a 200 percent increase in the calls that I get,” Wolcott said.
Despite the increased demand, the local Toys for Tots program, which extends from San Miguel to Lompoc, has risen to the challenge. Last year, more than 55,000 toys were donated – a whopping increase from the 11,000 donated its first year.
“We’ve been hearing national news about people spending more money and not donating as much,” Wolcott said. “We don’t see that here on the Central Coast. This is a unique area. People are caring in the area, and they don’t hesitate to show how much they care.”
The national Toys for Tots program began in 1947 when Diane Hendricks made a doll and asked her husband, Marine reservist Bill Hendricks, to deliver it to an organization that would give it to a needy child. When Bill Hendricks found no such organization, his wife suggested he start one. So he and other reservists in Los Angeles collected and distributed 5,000 toys to needy children, and Toys for Tots was born.
The Marines are still heavily involved, but other volunteers also play key roles.
In Nipomo, Deborah Mansfield became a big Toys for Tots figure when her son, Ethan, celebrated his first birthday. Before his first birthday party, Mansfield asked friends and relatives to bring Toys for Tots donations rather than lavish Ethan with loads of gifts. Then she invited the Marines to pick up the donations.
“I think they thought it’d be a cute little birthday party,” said Mansfield, a mortgage wholesaler. “But they picked up over 100 toys.”
The Toys for Tots parties continued each year, becoming a carnival-like event, with clowns and ponies. On Ethan’s 5th birthday two years ago, they raised 300 toys and $3,000. But it was getting hard for Ethan to see all those toys – especially a large Tonka truck on his 5th – go away. So his mother shifted gears and started a golf tournament. And yet again it’s become a huge success, bringing in around $40,000 this year.
“The tournament is in September,” she said. “And we actually sold out in May.”
Several local businesses also contribute. The Chumash Casino, for example, will donate a portion of its proceeds from the upcoming Judds concert to the organization. San Luis Obispo Garbage Company donates 150 new bikes every year. And the Cliffs Hotel put up the Laker Girls cheerleaders, who were part of the attraction for Mansfield’s golf tournament.
But mostly Toys for Tots thrives on toy donations from individuals.
There are 1,000 Toys for Tots boxes from San Miguel to Lompoc, with more being added all the time.
“People see me in stores (collecting toys) and say, ‘Can we get one?’” Muller said.
The local organization is split into 12 districts, each of which has its own coordinators. The volunteers in each district pick up donations and take them to different distribution centers. In San Luis Obispo, it’s the Salvation Army. In Atascadero, it’s Loaves and Fishes. And in Los Osos, it’s the Nazarene Church. The people at the distribution centers then make up the procedures for distributing toys.
At the Salvation Army, for example, parents can come in and get toys with proof of need. Once need is established, the distributors then help find the right toys based on the child’s age, interests and toys available.
With 55,000 toys, there are going to be options, though some toys come up often.
“We are loaded with Barbie Dolls and little cars,” Wolcott said.
Toys for Tots sizes up the inventory, then uses its cash donations and donations from the national organization to fill the gaps.
“We get mostly toys for the intermediate ages – from 6 until 12,” said Wolcott, who got involved after her husband, a member of the 680, began volunteering. “So we augment the collection with toys for the younger kids and for the older kids.”
The campaign kicks off in October and goes through the end of the year.
“We’ll take a toy any time in the year, and then we’ll store them until the next campaign,” Wolcott said.
Three weeks before Christmas, Wolcott said she had already had six boxes full from the Madonna Inn’s customers and employees alone.
“My garage is already full from a couple of places,” she said.