MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. (Dec. 19, 2017) – The aroma of pine, peppermint, and pinches of cinnamon fill the air. Holiday music hums on the radio; the spirit of giving floats about and the Marines have their own way of contributing as the holidays approach.
U.S. Marine Corps Reservist Maj. Bill Hendricks created the “Toys 4 Tots” program in 1947. Hendricks found inspiration from his wife when she tried to donate an old “Raggedy Ann” doll, but could not find an organization to do so. The Secretary of Defense approved “Toys 4 Tots” as an official mission of the Marine Corps Reserve in 1995 with a goal to collect new and unwrapped toys during the months of October, November, and December of each year. They then distribute those toys as Christmas gifts to the less fortunate children in the community.
U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Operations Specialist, and Kalamazoo, Michigan native, Sgt. Nicholas Mihalek, assigned to Marine Fighter Training Squadron (VMFT) 401, found his love for the “Toys 4 Tots” program when he began volunteering in 2009 as a Marine Corps Infantry Reservist and has volunteered ever since.
“You get a new appreciation, not just for community support, but for all those that help and for those who really are in need,” Mihalek stated. “What you can do, even though it may not be a lot, really does make a difference to some people.”
This is Mihalek’s second year as the MCAS Yuma “Toys 4 Tots” Coordinator. As the coordinator, his responsibilities include maintaining financial records, ordering and receiving toys, screening and approving toy requests, organizing and attending events, and distributing toys to nonprofit organizations and local families.
“It allows me to give back to the community and ensure that every child knows that they are not forgotten and that we do care about them and we want them to be happy,” Mihalek said.
However, Mihalek doesn’t do everything by himself. He receives support and assistance from MCAS Yuma Marines. Mihalek believes the program not only gives Marines the opportunity to volunteer and give back to the community, but also allows them to see the impact they have on the program and the local families in need.
“Taking a few hours out of your day to help with the program literally is the world to these families.” Mihalek explained.
Mihalek also receives help from his family. His wife helps him collect toys, go through paper work, and assist with distributing toys. His children help sort toys and load and unload boxes. Mihalek said it keeps them all busy, but it is rewarding. He believes his children have a new appreciation for their own Christmas.
“It’s important to ensure that the families who are in need are given the opportunity to have the Christmas they deserve.” Mihalek stated.
Mihalek’s official assistant and the 2018 MCAS Yuma coordinator is U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Operation Specialist, and Rancho Cucamonga, California native, Sgt. Roger Zuleta, assigned to VMFT-401. Zuleta was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, in 2012 when he first volunteered for “Toys 4 Tots.” Zuleta believes the program has had a big impact on his perspective of the community and also the less fortunate families.
“I’ve been able to see how the community can come together and assist in the campaign by donating monetary donations as well as toys.” Said Zuleta.
Zuleta explained that, during the application process, the families are allowed to write remarks if they please. Some families share their stories and why they would appreciate the toys. One of the most touching stories Zuleta read was about a local mother who recently lost her job and discovered her daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia. Zuleta said it had the most impact on him knowing the mother thought she wouldn’t be able to give her daughter a Christmas, but he is happy “Toys 4 Tots” was able to help.
“It makes sense not coming from a privileged family; it hits home. Hopefully it never happens but it could be me one day.” Zuleta said. “Just knowing that I could give something back to them because it’s not the children’s fault.”
Zuleta feels this program helps the Marine Corps’ relationship with the community because some people may believe the military’s only purpose is to fight wars, but by collecting and giving toys, it presents a new perspective of the military.
“Seeing the gratitude and [the families] just thanking us for our service or giving us hugs, it makes me feel like what we’re doing, serving our country, is worth it.” Said Zuleta as he smiled.
Tamara Vandedrink, an Alameda, California native, is a local recipient of the program. Vandedrink feels that receiving toys from military personnel makes the program that much better.
“Just being able to support the Marine Corps and say thank you for their service and for the gifts is just a win-win.” said Vandedrink.
This was Vandedrink’s first time receiving from “Toys 4 Tots” and she explained how grateful she was since she recently lost her husband and she didn’t know how she was going to give her grandkids a Christmas.
Vandedrink’s eyes filled with tears as she said, “I actually got it for my two grandchildren and when we opened the bag, there was so many things, it was really great!”
Vandedrink expressed gratitude and appreciation when she described how the Marine Corps not only helps keep peace and freedom in America, but also gives back to the communities of the nation that supports them.
“These people stand at the stores, they collect the toys, they’re respectful, they’re a cut above the average person, and then for them to turn around and give and serve the country, it doesn’t need to be forgotten,” stated Vandedrink. “I think the military needs to be brought to the forefront and they need to be thanked as well.”