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How Marines' Toys for Tots helped spread holiday cheer

'Twas several days after Christmas when the retired Marine marched box after box of new toys into the Livingston County Sheriff's Office.


He was soon joined by two deputies who helped him unload — not a sleigh, but a station wagon — that was piled end-to-end with donated toys.

Inside were Star Wars and Avengers action figures, science projects, remote control toys, a fossil excavation kit, and three boxes of popular Hess toy trucks, among other visible items.

The toys had been collected as part of the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots campaign and were being delivered by Jack Sparling, a representative of the Marine Corps Coordinating Council of Rochester, who was playing the role of Santa Claus.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Christopher Green)

"We're here to help out wherever we can, whether before or after the holidays. It doesn't matter," Sparling said.

And while the holidays may have passed, the Jan. 4 delivery to the Sheriff's Office will help make any season bright for area children.

"If there's a house fire, a death, something tragic or unfortunate, we can provide something for the child," said Deputy Mike Didas, who oversees the Sheriff's Office community policing initiatives. "It's not just at Christmas; unfortunately, kids and families can face a crisis at any time."

The donated toys will help with the Sheriff's Office's own Operation Christmas and officials will also alert other fire, ambulance, and emergency services that toys are available. Beyond Christmas season efforts, the toys help reassure children and give them hope that even in a crisis or other difficult situation things can improve.

Shelly Read, a Department of Social Services school-based preventative caseworker at Livonia Central School for the Department of Social Services, was picking up several toys for a family that had suffered a devastating home fire right after Christmas.

The Toys for Tots program, in conjunction with other school organizations and many volunteers, had also collaborated on a Santa's Workshop-style event at Livonia before the holidays.

"It's set up so nicely with cookies, hot chocolate, and decorations so it's a really fun experience for the whole family," Read said.

Also Read: This is why Toys for Tots is so important to the Corps

This year, the program served 66 families and 111 children just in Livonia.

The school-based program works closely with Toys for Tots and shares names and ages to pull together a positive experience.

It's similar to the effort of Operation Christmas in which school resource officers and other school officials provide names to the program, which Deputy Kerry Ann Wood from the corrections division helps coordinate.

Some names are also provided directly to the Sheriff's Office.

"For some people, they may not be able to afford toys for the children," said Didas.

The Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program is coordinated nationwide by the Marines Toys for Tots Foundation based in Quantico, Va. Some 800 campaigns take place nationally.

Sparling's group serves nine counties — distributing 35,000 toys to 17,000 families in its most recent Toys for Tots effort — and has been active in Livingston County for the past four years.

They would like to do more, he said.

The Toys for Tots boxes begin appearing in September but it is really a year-round effort, said Sparling.

A U.S. Marine takes donations for Toys for Tots in the days following Hurricane Katrina (Photo from FEMA)

"A lot of companies are very generous. We get great numbers of donations," he said, noting that warehouse space for the toys is donated.

The Coordinating Council itself serves a region that runs from Syracuse to Buffalo and Erie, Pa. The organization helps active and reserve Marines who encounter financial difficulties, such as missing car payments or rent. Those that may need mental or physical assistance are directed to the agencies that can best serve them. The Council often gets referrals from law enforcement agencies and veterans outreach organizations.

The Coordinating Council also hosts family days offering food and fun for reservists, family and friends; scholarships and the Marine Corps birthday ball.