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Toys for Tots has made difference in Polk kids’ lives for 30 years


Thomas R. Oldt

David Waller has run the Polk County Toys for Tots effort since 2017.

We are living in a divisive time, and this election season has been particularly abrasive. So it’s tempting to succumb to the feeling that we are somehow stuck in a rut, paralyzed in a permafrost of negativity.

But out there in the world beyond politics, hope is alive and well. For when you give a kid who has next to nothing a Christmas that might otherwise be denied, you are an agent of hope and an enemy of despair. And that, in a nutshell, describes the mission and reality of Toys for Tots, a charitable organization conceived by the U.S. Marine Corps and carried out by platoons of local volunteers.

Toys for Tots was founded in 1947 with the assistance of Walt Disney, who designed its logo. While it is a Marine Corps initiative, the operation is carried out locally with each entity serving a specific geographical area. The coordinator for Polk County is David Waller, who retired a few years ago from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Thomas R. Oldt

Waller, 65, grew up in Lake Wales, where he began his law enforcement career. Before going to the FDLE, he worked the drug and detective beat with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. In 2016, he joined Toys for Tots, became coordinator the next year and in 2018 was recognized as coordinator of the year for the southeast United States.

He oversees a massive effort from a donated warehouse in Auburndale that is run entirely by volunteers and is already packed with tens of thousands of toys, bicycles, dolls, books, games, arts and crafts and other fun stuff that will soon find its way into the homes of those most lacking in financial resources and most needing some Christmas cheer.

Q. How do the toys get to the kids?

A. We advertise on Facebook and we use other social media. The parents go online and apply, tell us the ages and gender of their kids, what they would like, and our “shoppers” take each order to a bagging table where the toys for each family are marked. We have 12 distribution spots around the county where all the bags are taken and the families are told to come there on Dec. 12 with identification and proof of government assistance – Snap, Medicaid, food stamps, other programs – and a runner gets the bag and delivers it to the parent.

Q. How do you reach families who are homeless?

A. The definition of homeless varies from agency to agency. Some people will be living in a car, and we try to do the best we can through social media and through the schools to get the word out.

Q. What is the age range for eligible youngsters?

A. They go from infant through age 13, although we’ll work with the families of special needs and mentally challenged children of different ages.

Q. How do the toys get to your warehouse?

A. Boxes are being distributed this week all though the county. We have about 450 locations that request these boxes. Every Publix in the county, for example, has one. We have volunteers who are route drivers that are picking up the boxes, taking them to the businesses and then later picking them up. We then take an inventory of all the toys, a requirement of the foundation that coordinates the national program.


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