Seeing a Toys For Tots collection box is as synonymous with the holidays as ringing bells for the Salvation Army.
It’s common to see these boxes, adorned with a cartoonish train and the emblem of the U.S. Marine Corps, fill with a myriad of toys and then disappear, thinking only that they will end up in the hands of some deserving children. But someone has to sort and prepare the toys, turning them into Christmas surprises.
Enter the Nittany Leathernecks Detachment 302 and their battalion of volunteers. For nearly three decades now, Gene and Donna Weller have been working to collect toys from across the county and distribute them to the food pantries that identify those needy children.
Working as a supply officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, Gene Weller said he felt the need to be involved with the Toys For Tots program, but his active duty counterpart was working out of Philadelphia. So he walked into the Marine recruitment office — the only real collection point in the county at the time — and said he wanted the responsibility.
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“I told the officer there I wanted to help,” he said. “He just said, ‘The job’s all yours, sir.’ ”
From that point, the collection effort began to expand to all reaches of the county. Last year, he said, the program collected about 16,000 toys.
Working with that many toys requires a small army of volunteers to sort, label and wrap every gift. About 1,000 people will help work with the toys leading up to Christmas, Donna Weller said.
Volunteers worked diligently Sunday at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, where the operation has taken over most of the second floor.
Workers of all ages first help to sort the toys into similar groups, such as books, puzzles or arts and crafts. The toys are also separated by gender and age group. Other workers block off the bar code on the toys, as they are not allowed to be returned.
Once sorted, the toys are taken to be wrapped and bagged for transportation around the county. Using a system the Wellers developed over the 29 years of work, each section of the county identifies the number of toys needed by gender and age group.
Each child gets four toys, Donna said. Recently, it was decided that grandparents who use the food bank are also eligible for two toys to give to their grandchildren.
Many additional toys are collected as well, she said, for families who may have missed the count or agencies needing toys after the holidays.
“There are some parents that are too proud to ask for help, but realize they need to do something for their kids,” she said. “We have space in the Hills Plaza that’s open up almost to Christmas Eve.”
Toys For Tots also collects food during their toy drives for donation to food pantries as well. Many places have stepped up their donations, she said, like Foxdale Village, who Donna said is donating a literal ton of food.
Volunteering is open to anyone, she said, especially younger volunteers.
“My feeling always is if we don’t teach kids when they’re young to do something for someone else, we’re going to miss the boat,” she said.
Owen Lamotte, 14, of State College, said he’s been helping the toy drive for seven years with his mother and sister. Since he’s not a fan of wrapping gifts, he’s taken to running bags of gifts from room to room, moving unwrapped toys and collections to their respective areas.
But wrapping is not completely beneath him. One of his fondest memories of volunteering came when he was 10, he said, and spent four hours wrapping a pile of sports equipment that everyone else had neglected.