Marine Corps League spends holiday season as Santa's helpers
Santa’s elves have been busy since October in the Fort Smith area, collecting toys for girls and boys who will awake on Christmas morning with a gift under the tree. But Santa’s elves are few, just like the Marines.
Members of the River Valley Detachment of the Marine Corps League, along with auxiliary members, have put in countless hours during the past two months setting up at various sites in the area collecting toys, donations and applications for its annual Toys for Tots program, according to Chris Remaley, commandant for the local detachment No. 1248.
“Every weekend from October till Christmas, we’ll be set up somewhere, like Walmart, Big Lots, Toys R Us taking donations of new, unwrapped toys or money,” explained Remaley, 60.
The members and volunteers also take applications from area families who hope to be able to give their children at least one gift for Christmas.
“Last year, we provided gifts for 17,000 kids,” said Robert Rivera, 52, local Toys for Tots coordinator. “We expect to do close to 25,000 kids this year.”
After browsing the applications, those families approved for the program are called and are able to visit the MCL’s Toy House, where custodial parents can actually hand pick the Christmas gifts they want for their children.
“When we started this, I wanted to give a toy for exercise, a book to learn and a toy just to play with,” explained Debi Rivera, Robert’s wife and auxiliary member, who sees some 60 families a day visiting the Toy House to select gifts.
With a donation from Scholastic Books of more than 34,000 books, Debi Rivera said the program is able to accomplish her goal.
Area toy drop locations, such as Dollar General, Toys R Us, Big Lots, Walgreens and Freds, among others, collect toys that individuals drop off, and then Santa’s elves, like RVDMCL members Don Lambert, Tom Payne and Gary Gilbert, pick up the toy donations and deliver them to the Toy House, where auxiliary and league members help sort toys by age and gender.
“Last year, I drove over 3,000 miles picking up toys,” said Lambert, 71. “Just about every one of these toys I’ve handled.”
At most toy-drop locations, monetary donations can be made. With those donations, along with the monetary donations they receive at the weekend events, money is sent to the Toys for Tots Foundation where they put it on a credit card and send it back to Fort Smith. MCL members then use the funds to purchase more gifts that will stay in Fort Smith and the surrounding area.
Toy Hill weekend happens Friday through Dec. 2, when league and auxiliary members will be set up from 4 p.m. Friday through 4 p.m. Dec. 2 at Walmart Supercenter at Massard Road and Rogers Avenue for 48 hours of toy, money and application collections to help fill the Toy House.
And the Toy House is a magical place. Although it’s just a warehouse in Chaffee Crossing, it’s filled with the hope, joy and laughter of the Christmas season — and thousands of toys.
With boys’ toys lining one wall and girls’ toys lining the other, all marked and displayed in age divisions, a table down the center holds books, puzzles, games and toys appropriate for any age.
“It gets to be a really emotional thing out here … with the families coming out here and picking out the toys for their children,” said Gilbert, 61. “Then we bag them up and send them on their way.”
Debi Rivera said it’s very gratifying to know that the Toys for Tots program is able to provide items that have been on a child’s Christmas wish list.
“The best thing about it is when they say my son wanted that but I told him I didn’t think we’d be able to get it for him because,” Debi Rivera said. “Then they ask if they can take it.”
Payne said his experience with the Toys for Tots program has been very rewarding.
“You better have a hankie when some of the parents come through; it can be very emotional,” Payne, 69, said. “Every one of us feels like Santa Claus.”
The members of the family oriented organization may feel like Santa at Christmastime, but they also help in other ways throughout the community all year. They provide an honor guard detail and 21-gun salutes at the funeral services of veterans and enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of fellow Marines and Fleet Marine Force Corpsman, the only members allowed to join the local Marine Corps League, a nonprofit organization intended to extend the brotherhood and fellowship of Marines who have served and continue to serve, Remaley said.
“We’ve served our country, now it’s time to serve our community,” Robert Rivera said, referring to the Marine’s motto of being faithful to God, country, family and the Corps.
Payne said he recalled one day when he assisted with a 21-gun salute at a veteran’s funeral.
“Then I came out here and see smiles and listen to giggles,” Payne said with tears welling up in his eyes. “A 2-year-old just relieved my sadness. It’s a true blessing.”
Remaley said with a membership of about 35 with only about eight active members, the strain of such a large undertaking like the Toys for Tots program can put a strain on those involved, especially if those members are aging and developing health issues.
“We struggle with younger membership,” Remaley said, adding that most members are between 50-70 years of age. Many of the members are also retired, having both the time and the financial means to be involved with the program. Many of the toys are purchased with money from their own pockets.
He said it’s difficult for young Marines with young families to devote time away from home to keep Toys for Tots going. But the organization is hoping for some younger former Marines to get involved. Civilians or veterans of other branches can join as an associate member or an auxiliary member.
“If you enjoy fellowship with your fellow Marines, it’s a brotherhood like no other,” Remaley said, adding that dues are $30 annually and the group meets the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. for business meetings and the first Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. for “scuttlebutt” gatherings; for information or to join, contact Remaley at 479-597-0382.
Robert Rivera said without the assistance of the auxiliary and the Young Marines group, the Toys for Tots program would not be what it is. And they will continue it as long as they are able.
“No child should wake up Christmas morning without a toy under the Christmas tree,” Rivera said.
“As Marines, we have seen the worst of the worst,” Remaley said. “Through Toys for Tots, it’s a way for us to see the best of the best of humanity.”
“You meet some of the neatest kids,” Payne said. “That’s why so many of us spend time doing things like this.
“Putting smiles on people’s faces and happiness in their hearts makes up for all the bad times we’ve experienced,” he added.
For information about joining the River Valley Detachment of the Marine Corps League, call Chris Remaley at (479) 597-0382 or Robert Rivera at (479) 522-4286.
For information about the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program, call either Remaley or Rivera or visit fort-smith-ar.toysfortots.org.
Toy drop locations and upcoming collection events are listed at the website, and monetary donations can be made online.