Being a Toys For Tots (TFT) coordinator is a very personal experience for me.
I was raised in a "giving" family that just happened to have a connection to the Marine Corps. My dad is a Marine and we were always involved in TFT in Seattle.
When I moved to Walla Walla and realized that we did not have a local coordinator, I applied. I knew that I could not do it by myself, that it would have to be a family and community effort.
The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation assisted with advertising and marketing, local businesses volunteered to be collection locations, and The Moms' Network members and other people offered their time to help me pick up, count, and distribute toys.
The local retired Marines and our local active Marines always lend a hand financially, physically and with their time to support TFT. The staff at St. Vincent de Paul coordinates most of the family applications.
The staff at St. Paul's Church allow me to store and sort toys also being the distribution location. With that comes phone calls, questions and clean up, which they do without complaint. My family did not have much choice, but over the past four years they've become pros at helping.
The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation supplies all my boxes, posters and promotional items, including my local TFT website.
This was my fourth year and the biggest year so far. The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation office warned local coordinators that donations were down and to be prepared.
I can honestly say that Walla Walla was not one of those communities this year.
We had 20 businesses from College Place to Waitsburg collect toys. Several ran advertisements at their own expense promoting TFT and offered giveaways or discounts if you purchased something for TFT.
Several businesses had holiday parties and asked employees to bring a gift for TFT instead of a white elephant gift or gifts for each other. This made a big difference to our totals this year.
Walla Walla is a very generous community and that aspect makes it easy for me to be a successful volunteer for TFT.
This year our local TFT campaign collected 1900 toys and distributed 2-3 toys to 800 children from College Place to Dayton. That is almost 100 more children than we served in 2009.
I have many favorite memories this year. I was lucky to have Sergeant Granados and Private Eastman in their dress blues standing outside in the snow at 1st & Main with me collecting donations. They were friendly, stoic and not only shared their time with me but also with the veterans or family members who stopped by to talk. It made me proud.
There are also visions of my husband in the dark, loading and unloading toys in the snow. I see my children each carrying boxes or bags of toys, counting them, and then painstakingly leaving each in its place when I know they really wanted to play with everything.
I see one friend driving around town picking up huge boxes at businesses and unloading them in between her family's preschool and nap time. I see another friend sorting toys with me at 7 p.m. as I promise it will only take an hour, then realize it is 10 p.m. on a school night and we are not done.
I see Younglives mentors showing local teen moms how to sort toys for other families, all the while encouraging them and guiding them. For the fourth year in a row, I see two teenage brothers with their buddy volunteer on pick-up day.
I see my oldest son take pride in being a part of the entire process. He has memorized the list of all the toy drop off locations. He can sort all the toys by age and he can help a family fill out an application if they show up late. I see him stand tall with his shoulders back, totally in charge when the volunteers show up. He makes me so proud.
My family lives TFT for six weeks every year. They drop off boxes, pick up boxes, count toys, sort toys, and keep their baby brother out of everything.
The first year, it was hard to explain TFT and Santa in the same conversation. But they know that not every family is fortunate enough to receive gifts at Christmas time. They understand that people in our community take time to buy and donate toys and but them in a TFT box. From there, it is our responsibility to get them to the families.
They don't complain, they help. Even on Christmas Eve they went with me to distribute toys to the last two families. They all waved and said "Merry Christmas" as the families left.
I want to teach them that we are not just "giving" during the holidays, that TFT is what the Swanson family does during December. I want them to learn that each year during Christmas, we are supporting families that are having a tough year so their children can have a great Christmas. I want them to support the Marines, businesses, friends and volunteers who support our family and make TFT possible in our community.