Foundation saves Toys for Tots

Wal-Mart people greeter Wanda Clayton of Freeland will be more than happy to help people place donated items into the Toys For Tots bin. - Cynthia Woolbright
Wal-Mart people greeter Wanda Clayton of Freeland will be more than happy to help people place donated items into the Toys For Tots bin.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

God bless the Island Gift Foundation.

Last year, when local Marine Reservists notified Toys for Tots volunteers that they could no longer handle the collection and distribution of Christmas gifts for needy children in Island County, it appeared that the program might go bust locally.

Officials with Island County Opportunity Council, a natural choice to take over operations of the non-profit charity, were simply too swamped to step to the plate, and no other local organization immediately ran to fill the void. For a while, the seasonal forecast facing a lot of local families was for a “Blue Christmas.”

Enter Island Gift Foundation, a non-profit organization founded just this year and headed by Irene Thomas. Staffed by the same group of volunteers that ran the foundation for the Coupeville Farmers Market for the last 7 years, Island Gift literally has saved the day by assuming responsibility for Toys for Tots and becoming the program’s official local representative.

“We have taken this on,” Thomas said. “We have experience and we know what we’re doing,” she added, pointing out that Island Gift Foundation is comprised of “a very small and very active, hard working board and volunteers.

“We get volunteers wherever we can find them,” she added.

As far as this year’s program is concerned, it was touch and go for a while, Thomas said, especially when local military representative were forced to quit organizing and running Toys for Tots.

“Since there isn’t that group of Marines on the base anymore that normally would handle it, there was nobody left on the island to do it,” Thomas explained. “We were asked to take up the slack or else there would have been nothing. Our nearest group of legitimately involved Marines is at Fort Lewis (in Tacoma), and that’s a long way for them.”

The Marine Toys for Tots program was founded in 1947 by Major Bill Hendricks, who with the support of his Los Angeles Marine Corps Reserve unit collected and distributed 5,000 toys for needy children during the holiday season. The program was so successful that the corps adopted it the very next year, expanding it to nationwide status.

The mission of Toys for Tots is to “deliver a message of hope to America’s neediest children by collecting and distributing toys to those children that would not otherwise receive a gift during the holidays.”

The Puget Sound Toys for Tots program — one of 300 such programs conducted across the country during Christmas — distributed in 2001 a total of 120,207 toys to 216 different non-profit organizations, with a total retail cost equalling over $1.8 million.

That’s a lot of toys, and for a very good cause.

According to Thomas, some 964 children last year received Christmas gifts through Island County’s Toys for Tots program, “not counting,” she added, “the 400 or 500 that went through small organizations.”

This holiday season could be especially tough for a lot of families on Whidbey Island, with the local economy being hit by recession and another round of layoffs at Boeing. Thomas said that when it comes to charity, it’s important for people to look beyond the stereotypes of poverty to realize that anyone can be affected by hard times. Giving should be a matter of hope, a gesture of sharing rather than pathos.

“It’s not just poor people,” Thomas said of those who partake of Toys for Tots. “In the winter time, Whidbey doesn’t have that much income. Everybody hurts.”

“There’s people who have lost their jobs, who are just having a hard time. There’s no shame in receiving a little help,” she said, adding that “everything’s done anonymously” to avoid making recipients uncomfortable in accepting gifts.

Collection barrels are already in place at several places around Whidbey Island, such as various local banks, shopping centers, fire stations and real estate offices. As Thomas said, “It’s not too early to start.”

Official Toys for Tots barrels are easily recognized for their long-standing logo, which features a choo-choo train designed by the late Walt Disney in 1948.

All toys collected will be distributed between Dec. 20-23, at an as-yet-undecided distribution center in Coupeville. However, Thomas assured that toy distribution, wherever it happens to be, will be “at a very convenient, accessible location.”

Toys for Tots supplies gifts to any non-profit group that gives out Christmas baskets; folks can also pick up presents at the distribution center, though they must apply to do so through the foundation. Applications are available through Island County Opportunity Council.

Gifts are distributed to families whose income is 120 percent of the Federal Poverty Guideline. Every low-income child is entitled to two gifts on a one-time-only basis; Thomas said distribution lists are coordinated with local YMCA databases, to avoid double-dipping.

“That is a serious problem,” she said, adding that the two gift limit will be strictly enforced this year. “That’s just their rule, period,” she said. “A lot of people haven’t been enforcing it the way they should.”

Toys for Tots is asking that folks donate new toys only, seeing as “hand-me-down” toys can deliver the wrong message to children who might be sensitive to the impression of being a “second-class citizen” worthy only of castoff toys. The idea is to enhance self esteem and deliver a message of hope. Also, gifts should not be gift wrapped, in order that volunteers can sort them according to age and gender applicability.

Thomas, emphasizing a crucial fact about the program, said it’s important for donors to know that their gifts will go only to local kids. “Any toy that’s donated on the island, stays on the island,” she said. “We don’t ship them off.”

Since Toys for Tots also does a fair amount of purchasing, cash donation are also accepted. Businesses, charities and other organizations that hold gift drives can arrange to have their stuff picked up by Toys for Tots volunteers.

Thomas said gifts for older kids are always in shortage, and that Toys for Tots donors can really give a boost to the program by focusing on this age bracket, especially teenagers.

“From ten and up, there is a big need, a very big need,” Thomas said. Although, as any parent knows, it can be difficult to purchase stuff for teens, Thomas said the possibilities are unlimited. “One of the easiest is gift certificates,” she added, for such things as books, music or clothes. For girls, she said, “there’s always make-up sets, that type of thing.”

Thomas added that, when the time comes for toy distribution, folks don’t need to be worried about being the first in line on the first day, with the idea of snatching up the best gifts. Things will be regulated so that everyone gets a shot at landing an awesome present, right up to the last day.

“We are going to space out giving out the good stuff. It’ll be doled out to cover the entire span of distribution,” Thomas said.

“Don’t worry about being at the end of the line,” she added.

Thomas said the driving motivation behind Toys for Tots — as well as Island Gift Foundation, which also distributes Christmas gifts as well as shoes for school kids — is “helping people in need, at a time which should be one of joy.”

She said she has great hope that the foundation will continue to expand over time. “We hope to grow,” Thomas said. “We hope to just literally grow to where we can take care of Whidbey Island.”

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