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How Marines and Celebrities Joined Forces to Collect Toys for Tots

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By Tom Konecny

When the wife of a U.S. Marine Corps Reservist wanted to donate a toy at Christmas, she couldn’t find any organization to take it. Her husband wanted to help. Guided by a motto of “Ready, Relevant, Responsive” the reservist took matters into his own hands.

He created his own charity.

It all started in 1947 when Diane Hendricks, wife of Major Bill Hendricks, USMCR, wanted to donate her handcrafted Raggedy Ann doll to a needy child. Though she couldn’t find a charity who would take her gift, both she and her husband knew that disadvantaged children were all over their Los Angeles area. The problem was, there just wasn’t one focused effort to assist all of the children at Christmas. At Diane’s suggestion, Hendricks teamed with Lieutenant Colonel John Hampton, who was stationed at a Marine Reserve training center in Los Angeles after World War II. Together, they enlisted the help of other local Marine reservists and began collecting toys for area children that holiday season.

Courtesy Toys for Tots

Hendricks’ full-time profession was as public relations officer for Warner Bros. So he arranged to have toy collection bins outside of Warner Bros. movie theaters. Hampton, also a public information officer, partnered with Hampton and used his journalism experience to promote the campaign.

Their work was such a hit that in 1948 it was launched as a national campaign, Toys for Tots. Hendricks used his Warner Bros. ties to procure celebrity support and had Walt Disney Studios design its red toy train logo. After years of continued success, a theme song was recorded in 1956 by singers Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Vic Damone. Later years would find celebrities like Tim Allen, Garth Brooks and Kenny Rogers supporting Toys for Tots. The celebrity support caused a wave of further backing from others, including professional sports teams and individuals across the nation. First Ladies also participated, including Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama, who supported it for eight straight years.

For the first few decades, Marine reservists and volunteers would collect and refurbish used toys, but by 1980 only new toys were accepted. The change in policy reflected several new mindset shifts about the Toys for Tots program. First, reservists were no longer able to use drill hours to refurbish toys. Second, there were legal concerns about repairing toys. Third, some felt it sent a mixed message by giving children hand-me-down toys in conjunction with a message of hope.

In the 1990s, the Secretary of Defense authorized an affiliation with Toys for Tots, and later, approved it as an official mission of the Marine Corps Reserve. Realizing that some communities did not have a Marine reservist presence, the commander of the Marine Forces Reserve authorized Marine Corps League detachments and other area organizations to assist with toy collection and distribution.

Today the Toys for Tots mission is “to collect new, unwrapped toys during October, November and December each year, and distribute those toys as Christmas gifts to needy children in the community in which the campaign is conducted.” The stated goal is related, “to deliver, through a new toy at Christmas, a message of hope to less fortunate youngsters that will assist them in becoming responsible, productive, and patriotic citizens.”

Presently, Toys for Tots distributes an average of 18 million toys to 7 million less fortunate children each year.

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