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Toys for Tots is gearing up for its 72nd annual toy collection, which according to its website will occur in over 800 communities across the 50 states.

Humble Beginnings

The Toys for Tots program was started in 1947 by Bill Hendricks of the United States Marine Corps Reserve (USMCR), with a handmade doll serving as the first toy donation. The goal of the program is simple; to bring Christmas joy by delivering toys to children whose parents cannot afford gifts. From 1947 to 1979, new and used toys were collected and distributed. Used toys were refurbished on weekends by reservists during the months of October, November, and December. However, from 1980 through the present, only new toys have been collected.

The iconic Toys for Tots train logo was designed by Walt Disney in 1948, and in the 1950s a theme song was written and later recorded by Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Vic Damone.

Exponential Growth 

Throughout the years, celebrities from film and music such as Brooke Shields, John Wayne, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra served as spokespersons. NASA Astronaut John Glenn also was a spokesperson, as well as First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush.

The year of Hendricks’ death, 1992, saw over 7.4 million toys collected and distributed. Approximately one-third of those toys were delivered to children in Florida and Louisiana who were affected by Hurricane Andrew. This volume of philanthropic compassion shows that Toys for Tots isn’t just about Christmas—it’s about spreading joy to children across the United States.

Broadening Reach

As it evolved, the program focused more and more on changing societal needs and challenges facing children. For example, in 2001, the Toys for Tots campaign featured children who had lost parents in the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC.

During the progression of the 2000s, the program continued to flourish despite USMC resources being deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq to fight the war on terrorism. Economic woes in 2009 through 2012, as well as a Government shutdown in 2013, did not derail the success of the Toys for Tots program. While economies certainly have an impact on philanthropy, this was a case where the cause outweighed the costs.

According to the Toys for Tots website, 2014 and 2016 were the best fundraising years for the organization, as $284 million and $280 million respectively came from direct mail, corporate, and website donations. First Lady Michelle Obama was an avid supporter of the program throughout the Obama Administration’s tenure, using her office to encourage generosity from Americans everywhere. The program continues to be a huge success, with towns and cities hosting school and community drives. Check for one near you, and be sure to get out and help a kid in need this holiday season!