Toys for Tots: Seven Decades of Holiday Magic

Grace Williams

Anyone familiar with Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas knows its central message: Christmas isn’t about presents. Although that’s hopeful and idyllic, we all know that deep down, most kids want something—just for them—to help bring the holiday magic home.

Thanks to the generosity and hard work of donors and members of the United States Marine Corps, every year millions of children receive some of that longed-for holiday magic thanks to the Toys for Tots program.

The program took root long before the Grinch took center stage in many a family’s TV room. In 1947’s holiday season, a dilemma loomed large at the greater Los Angeles home of one Major Bill Hendricks, USMCR, and his wife, Diane. She had handcrafted several dolls that she hoped to donate to needy children for the holidays. But she came up blank about where to donate them. Major Hendricks, too, attempted to find a place to donate the toys and his efforts proved unfruitful.

It was then that Mrs. Hendricks realized a distribution channel was needed to give toys to children, and instructed her husband to “start one!” In just a few short weeks in 1947, Major Hendricks and a group of Marine Corps reservists got to work, collected 5,000 new and used toys, and distributed them to the area’s needy children. Thus began the first drive of what would become the nationally recognized “Toys for Tots” program.

By the next holiday season, the Marine Corps had expanded the idea of collecting and distributing toys to include a national community action program. The program gained momentum thanks to Hendricks’ day job as director of public relations at Warner Brothers Studio. In that guise, Hendricks was able to enlist celebrities help alongside Marines and civilians. For instance, the program’s iconic, three-train car logo—which exists to this day—was designed by an illustrator pal of Hendricks, who happened to be none other than Walt Disney.

Toys for Tots’ mission to bring magic and hope to needy children has exploded since those early ad hoc efforts. It has served as a way for the Marine Corps, everyday citizens, and corporations to join forces to create unforgettable holiday memories. Toys for Tots is also the recipient of generosity from such corporate sponsors as Hallmark, Hasbro, and The Walt Disney Company.

Distributing toys is no longer as easy as it was in the program’s early years, Now, requests for toys come through an online registration form; donations are classified by a child’s age and gender. Toy-drop sites pop up starting as early as October 1 each year in local venues such as supermarkets and office buildings; donations are accepted either in the form of unwrapped new toys or cash contributions. Volunteers work alongside Marines and reservists to store and sort the toys, which are then distributed at community centers or through dedicated events.

In 2018, Toys for Tots distributed 18.6 million toys to 7 million less-fortunate children in 805 communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. All told, the program estimates that from its start in 1947, Marines and volunteers have distributed 566 million toys to 258 million children.

To handle the magnitude and volume of donations, the organization splits collection and distribution into six regions, running as many as 133 local campaigns per region. For example, in 2018, the Northern New Jersey campaign consisted of seven counties. “Throughout the season we conduct events within our local area to raise awareness,” says First Sergeant Eduardo Ascencio, the coordinator for the Northern New Jersey chapter. In 2018, his site alone collected and distributed more than 143,000 toys, and donations were processed by nine active-duty Marines and a handful of volunteers. (In 2019, the mix was eight service members and 20 volunteers.)

This year, Ascencio’s third with the program, the Northern N.J. campaign took in 512 requests for toys, compared to last year’s 403 requests. At a recent distribution event at a local police station, the value of the program truly hit home for Ascencio. “The most positive feedback is the faces of the children when they get their toys and when the parents give me a big hug and say thank you.”