The tale of Toys for Tots never gets old with each holiday season, when thousands of toys and stocking stuffers are collected and given away to many of Hawai‘i’s less-fortunate keiki.
With the holiday season just around the corner, the U.S. Marines are once again going beyond the call of duty with their annual Toys for Tots program.
The mission is simple: Collect new unwrapped toys and deliver hope and joy to less fortunate children at Christmas. The operation, though, is a little more complex. It requires a lot of planning, counting, sorting and coordinating, and, of course, the help of many volunteers and generous donors.
This year’s Toys for Tots Hilo campaign kicked off Oct. 1, with help from Employees of Hawaii Electric Light Company and Josie Kiyan serving as local campaign coordinator. Toys can be dropped off to any Hawaii Electric Light Company locations in Hilo and Kona, and at collection boxes at participating businesses through Dec. 17. A list of toy drop-off sites can be found online at hilo-hi.toysfortots.org. In 2020, the Hawaii Electric Light Company Toys for Tots program distributed 7,628 toys to 6,524 children.
“There’s never enough toys to give out,” says GySgt. Jonathan Ibarra, volunteer local coordinator of Toys for Tots O‘ahu for the second consecutive year. “We accept toys for all ages. The biggest gap in toys collected is from our birth to 2 years old age group. Also, the 11 years-plus, a lot of teenagers get forgotten.”
“I remember last year … a company dropped off a couple of bicycles. I was extremely impressed with how the community got involved. There are a lot of good-hearted people out there that will go and buy larger toys that are a little more expensive. During one of the distribution events, there was a family with this little girl. I randomly got one of those bicycles and gave it to her and she lit up with happiness. I don’t think she was expecting to even know that she was going to receive toys for Christmas, so when she received the bicycle … it made me happy. I am a father of two and seeing my children happy makes me happy. That was one of the instances I remember that was very impactful to me and why I continue to do it this year.”
Originally from Texas, Ibarra moved to Hawai‘i in May 2019, and is currently working as a parachute safety officer. Amid the pandemic, he was tasked with coordinating last year’s Toys for Tots O‘ahu program, and successfully distributed 21,661 toys, stocking stuffers and books to 16,301 keiki.
“I decided to take it upon myself to volunteer again this year since I already had a little bit of experience from last year,” says Ibarra, noting he has seven more months in Hawai‘i before his next rotation. “During COVID, it was definitely extremely challenging. All I wanted to do was reach out to as many children that I could, even though I was being restricted by a lot of things. I was quarantined for almost 28 days of the campaign because I was still traveling and doing my job for the Marine Corps.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done.”
Like Santa’s elves, Ibarra also has a dedicated team of volunteers in the Toys for Tots shop. Assisting him this year are Sgt. Nathan Stew-art and wife Clairece, along with 1st Sgt. Jeremy Bland and wife Christina. The program also receives help from social welfare and community agencies, church groups, businesses and more.
“Clairece is in the warehouse sorting and counting the toys, coordinating the volunteers and getting collection boxes out,” notes Ibarra. “And Christina is helping with a lot of the requests for toys.
“A lot of people believe that the military bases or the Marines are the ones who benefit from this, but it’s nationwide and within our local communities. Donations collected here, stay here.”
Founded in 1947, the first Toys for Tots was held in Los Angeles when Maj. Bill Hendricks and the Marines in his reserve unit collected 5,000 toys for children in need. Hendricks also worked as the director of public relations at Warner Brothers Studios, and was friends with many celebrities who supported the inaugural Toys for Tots program, including Walt Disney, who designed the first Toys for Tots poster that included the iconic miniature three-car train logo.
In 1991, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation was established to help run and support the Marine Toys for Tots Program, and currently distributes an average of 18 million toys to 7 million children annually. In 2001, Marine Corps Base Hawai‘i at Kāne‘ohe Bay officially launched a local campaign, making this year its 20th anniversary.
“I remember being part of a similar program when I was growing up,” shares Ibarra. “There were a lot of times growing up that I didn’t have toys. My mom was going through some hard times, and at that time (I was maybe 8 to 11 years old), I was at school and they selected a couple of students that were going through some hardship. They would take us to this huge party with a combination of dif
ferent schools in the district, and they would call us up on stage and hand us our gifts. I still remember that skateboard that they gave me, and I got a basketball.
“I think these programs (like Toys for Tots) are very important. These gifts provide a memory for a lifetime.
I know it did for me. I believe if we can provide that type of kindness to our local children, they will grow to be better people and be able to give back that kindness and ultimately enjoy a great holiday season.”
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