The 2021 Randolph Country Marine Corps League's Toys for Tots program wrapped up with a flurry of activity last weekend as volunteers came together to sort and distribute hundreds of gifts -- all with the goal of making sure Christmas morning is filled with smiles for local families.
In all, 258 families with 636 kids in the Randolph County cities of Sparta, Chester, Steeleville, Red Bud, Prairie du Rocher and Evansville were served with Christmas gifts this year by the program, which has been in existence for decades.
"Each recipient selected for the annual program receives a wide selection of gifts including a 'big toy' gift with a value of at least $30-$35," said Pamela Piel, of Red Bud, coordinator of the Randolph County Toys for Tots Program. "We also like the kids to receive educational items like books, etc. The Marine Corps Foundation also provides supplemental gifts, and donors from each community give gifts to add to the supply of available gifts."
The project comes to a head over one busy weekend a couple weeks before Christmas. This year, city coordinators brought all of the gifts collected throughout the year to the American Legion in Chester.
Approximately 35 volunteers worked all day Friday, including nine students from St. Mary's Catholic School in Chester, Legion members and Legion Auxiliary members, local Marines and Marine Veterans, community members and others.
Once gifts were unloaded, they were sorted by volunteers according to the age groups of both boys and girls and the types of gifts -- "big toys," books and educational supplies, stocking stuffers.
On Saturday, another group of volunteers gathered at the Legion to fill the Santa wish lists of the recipients. Each volunteer received a list, along with a huge black heavy duty garbage bag. Their task was to walk the aisles of gifts and fill the wish list as closely as possible.
"We do not wrap the gifts. They are put in the bags unwrapped," said John Preston and his wife, Norma, assistant coordinators for Red Bud. "Parents can then wrap the items. ... That adds a personal touch for the parents to get them involved in the process and give them a sense of owning the project."
Chester's Marine Corps coordinator Lee Hollaway said he and his wife, Farida, spend a lot of time each year involved with the Toys for Tots project.
"We start planning and collecting for next year's Toys for Tots project immediately after we get this year's project finished. It is a year-round effort that is a continuous process," said Lee Hollaway.
"Most of the city coordinators store donations in their basements throughout the year as they come in," Farida Hollaway added. "People are always offering to help collect items and they have to be stored somewhere. Last night Lee spent a lot of time in our basement blowing up basketballs and kick balls, which we brought here today to add to the gift piles."
According to John Preston, assistant coordinator from Red Bud, this year the program planned to supply gifts for 322 boys and 314 girls.
"This is all possible by numerous donation efforts throughout the year. We have collections at business throughout the county," Preston said. "We also have an annual raffle that raises money to purchase more gifts. Individuals also donate gifts and money, and we had a wine bingo project this year. The Marine Corps Foundation is a huge donor of supplemental gifts for the kids too."
The 2021 Toys for Tots project has been deemed a huge success. The many volunteers who assisted with this year's project noted that they thoroughly enjoy helping with the effort and that they intend to continue volunteering with the 2022 effort.