Thomas R. Oldt
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.
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.
Q. How did you acquire the use of this massive warehouse and about how many toys go through it each year?
A. This is where all the magic happens. It was donated by CWI logistics. It’s just like a toy store in here, organized by age group and type of toy – but nothing with a gun. If we get a gun, we get rid of it. We’ve purchased a lot of bikes this year, and when we give a bike, we give a helmet with it. Last year, we distributed about 46,000 toys. I think we’ll be higher this year.
Q. Where do the toys come from?
A. Toys are donated year-round. We get toys after Christmas as well. We accept only new, unwrapped toys. People also donate money – it all stays in Polk County – and we go out and make purchases. We went to Big Lots when they had a 50% off sale and bought 207 toys for a little less than $900. We always look for sales. Penny’s in Lake Wales is going out of business. I went over there with 70% off, 80% off and bought their entire stock of toys.
Polk Correctional Institution makes wooden toys. They make great toys, beautifully painted, and each year they come to us with 400, 500 toys that we give out to the children.
Q. Do you have a paid staff?
A. No. Everybody is a volunteer. Nobody takes a penny. We do everything at our own expense. Some volunteers have been with us 20 years. You’ll notice it’s very hot in here. Our volunteers are very committed, but by about 2 p.m. they are exhausted. What you see is a big improvement over the past. Just recently a lady donated 100 tables – that was a big surprise for the volunteers. Before that, everything was stacked on the floor. This community is tremendous in supporting our activities and our purpose and I can’t say enough about our volunteers.
Q. Toys for Tots has been in Polk County for about 30 years. How is the organization structured?
A. Around the country, there are 806 campaigns like this. If there’s a Marine Corps unit stationed in that area, such as Tampa or Orlando, actual Marines run the campaign. Where there is not a base – we don’t have a base here, we have a recruiting station, but that’s different – volunteers run the program. Many people see the name “Marine Corps Toys for Tots” and think there are actual Marines running the campaign. I think most people do not fully realize that our Polk County Campaign is completely run by unpaid volunteers.
Q. The coronavirus has put a dent in the budget of many charities and certainly in the budget of many families. Do you expect the need to be greater this year because of the resulting economic slowdown and the many job losses here in Polk County?
A. We do. Last year we helped over 14,000 children in Polk County – more than 4,000 families – and we’re on track to at least do that again, probably more.
Q. There are many wonderful charities doing great work. How did you come to associate yourself with this one?
A. There was a story in The Ledger in 2016 asking for toys, asking for people to get involved. I saw the article and had just spoken to the coordinator a couple of days before to donate some toys and said I’d like to help with the program. There’s a gentleman named George Overstreet – I call him The Godfather – he’s about 90 years old and he’s been involved forever, he and Bernie Heisler. George interviewed me, told me what to expect and what to do. I said I was ready, and he glanced over at one of the other folks with a look like “we’ve got one on the hook here,” and that was it.
Q. What is your role and responsibility?
A. The coordinator is responsible for everything – paperwork, logistics, reports to the foundation, financial statements and coordinating with other agencies. We work with other nonprofits and give them toys in bulk. Because I’m an ex-cop I know all the police chiefs and we partner with all the law enforcement agencies. We keep some toys out, and all the chiefs know if they have an emergency – a house burns down, some kind of family emergency – we’ll give them toys so that the child has something to do, to occupy their attention while the parents handle whatever they need to handle in their life.
Q. If someone is seeking help for their child, or if a citizen wants to volunteer, how do they go about it?
A. To apply for toys or to volunteer or simply to learn more about the program, go to our website: polkcounty-fl.toysfortots.org.
Thomas R. Oldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.