For 75 years, Toys for Tots has been nearly synonymous with Christmas, making sure kids have some presents under the tree every year. WTOP spoke with the top Marine in charge of the campaign about the program’s long history and just how large its mission has become.
For nearly all of those 75 years, Toys for Tots has been an official authorized activity of the United States Marine Corps Reserve, which is made up of around 100,000 active-duty and reserve Marines.
“Above everything else, above the physical toughness and the valor in combat, at the end of the day, we are a values-based organization,” said Lt. Gen. David Bellon, the top Marine for Toys for Tots and commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve.
“I think what Toys for Tots allows is for us to demonstrate what we believe in, and who we aspire to be on our best days,” he said. “We’re doing something on our own time to help people we don’t know, because we think it’s the right thing to do.”
Bellon has served as commander of the reserves since 2019 and is based in Arlington, Virginia. He said that early on in his career, he might have seen Toys for Tots as a distraction from keeping him and his Marines combat-ready.
“I’m a little more mature, a little more worldly,” said Bellon. “Toys for Tots is a critical opportunity for us to interface with the American people and demonstrate our values beyond traditional ways.”
Marines spend time with the kids and families who receive the gifts, and they spend hours with an army of about 60,000 civilian volunteers with the Toys for Tots Foundation.
“The astounding thing is, when you see these people together, you might have a 27-year-old Marine gunnery sergeant who is a combat veteran … sitting right next to a 68-year-old grandmother, and they align for a single mission driven with enthusiasm, positive social energy.”
The Marine Corps Toys For Tots started in 1947, when Diane Hendricks made a Raggedy Ann doll and wanted to give it to a child who wouldn’t otherwise have a toy for Christmas, but there was no organization at the time that distributed toys. Her husband, Marine Corps Reserve Col. Bill Hendricks, gathered 5,000 toys in the Los Angeles area and targeted orphans who lost parents in World War II.
Gen. Clifton Cates, who was commandant of the reserves at the time, heard about their effort and ordered all Marine Corps Reserve units to start similar programs in their areas.
“He ordered us to champion this cause and to make it work,” said Bellon.
Hendricks’ civilian job was as director of public relations at Warner Brothers, and the nonprofit got an early boost from that Hollywood connection: “Almost every major megastar that you could think of in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was an advocate for Toys for Tots,” said Bellon.
The list includes folks such as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Wayne and George Harrison, just to name a few.
The famous red train logo also has a connection to a Hollywood icon: “Hendricks called Walt Disney, and as the legend goes, he’s describing this effort while Disney is doodling some concept sketches. And within days, a courier came over to Bill’s office with the Toys for Tots train,” said Bellon. As you can imagine, they have never changed the logo.
Toys for Tots has brought gifts and joy to around 281 million children and they have prevailed through some of the toughest years — namely, the last two.
Bellon said he was asked at the beginning of the COVID pandemic whether they should cancel toy drives for that year, and that he decided, “We’re Marines. We’re really only needed when things are hard, and hard is authorized for us. We decided right then and there, whatever it takes, we’re doing it.”
The Marines and the volunteers buckled down over the next two years, and ended up setting records for the number of kids helped, at 8.7 million.
“The need was higher, but people were also looking for a way to connect and they came out of the woodwork,” said Bellon.
“I think it would be pretty normal to think that we took a step backwards during the peak COVID years. But that just wasn’t the case,” said Bellon. ”It’s kind of an inspiring commentary on the American people.”
He added that despite inflation, they expect to break records and deliver toys to around 10 million kids this Christmas.