Gene Weller doesn’t resemble Santa, but every fall, he works hard to make sure local children grin at Christmas. A retired Marine major in State College, Weller, 57, has coordinated the county Toys for Tots program for 23 years, using his experience as a supply officer to gather and wrap thousands of donated new toys.
Q: How did you get started?
A: First of all, Toys for Tots, historically from day one, has been a Reserve Corps function. ... I felt a need to be involved with the program because I was a reserve officer. ... And so, I had heard there had been some activity with Toys for Tots going on and that it was very passive. The only face of the Marine Corps in Centre County was the recruiting office. People would drop off toys, and (the Marines) would simply then contact the Elks Club or the food bank, working in conjunction, to have the toys distributed through them. ... So I went into the recruiting office, announced who I was and said I’d like to help Toys for Tots. The captain in charge of the office promptly stood up and said, “Sir, it’s all yours.”
Q: What were some early challenges?
A: All the toys previously had been collected and distributed through State College. I wanted to make this a countywide effort. ... We could collect on a countywide basis, but finding the mechanism to be able to distribute on a countywide basis was a challenge. There was a (county) children’s services person I was put in touch with, and she pretty much ran with it that first year so that we were distributing on a countywide basis.
Q: What’s something not known about Toys for Tots?
A: The history of it. ... It all began with one Raggedy Ann doll (made by a Los Angeles major’s wife in 1947 for charity]. That led to 5,000 toys, which then led to 77 (participating Marine Corps Reserve) units, which, today, is 688 campaigns across the country.
Q: Is our program typical?
A: Wrapping the toys is something that’s pretty unique. There are very, very few out of the 688 across the country that wrap the toys. ... But it works for us, and I believe we get more toys because the public is more actively involved than simply hearing a plea and putting a toy into a barrel. ... We usually have an average of 200 people a day who come out to help us wrap, and that’s not any conscious effort to get people there. For the most part, people are asking us for the schedule of when the wrapping is, and they’re putting it on their calenders.
Q: What should people know about the progam?
A: ... the Marine Toys for Tots program is the only sanctioned (Department of Defense) program that reaches out to the community. There are organizations that are doing things for veterans or veterans’ families, but this is the only thing that reaches out to the community beyond military families. ... Back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, the Marine Corps, the military, was being downsized. ... So there was a real question about what would happen if the Toys for Tots program was abandoned. And directly to the advantage of the Marine Corps — this was probably about 1990 or 1991— it was determined that, from a recruitment standpoint, awareness of the Marine Corps, the Marine Corps would have to spend somewhere around $41 million in advertising to make up for what the program does. So the bottom line was: We can’t not do it. We have to find a better way. And that’s when the (Marine Corps Toys for Tots) foundation was established to do the day-to-day stuff.
Q: Did you ever want, but not get, a toy for Christmas?
A: I don’t think so. I grew up in a lower middle-class household. And I’ve thought of this over the years, that I never really thought there was anything I needed — I should say I wanted. Everything I always needed was always there. ... Maybe that’s also the way I try to live my life. I don’t drive around in a Mercedes or BMW. It’s just not my style.
Q: Any favorite toy stories?
A: I don’t really hear very many. Some people who come out to help wrap, there was one lady who said, “I don’t have enough money to be able to buy a toy but I’m glad to come out and help wrap.” And we’ve had others that were Toys for Tots kids and said, “Hey, things are better for me now so I want to give back.” We see some of that. ... We know that there’s got to be kids who are needy that aren’t getting toys.
Q: What do you find rewarding?
A: We know we are doing work for needy children in the county. We know how important some hope and joy can be to children who otherwise don’t have any. Why are they second-class citizens? Why are they not getting what their friends are getting? A simple thing as a toy.