'Semper Fi' applies to the kids, every year.
Sometimes even Santa can’t make sure every good boy or girl gets a Christmas present. When that happens, it’s time to call the United States Marines.
For the past 70 years, the United States Marine Corps Reserves has collected new, unwrapped toys for Toys for Tots, now recognized as an official mission of the USMCR.
While there are no Marine bases in Delaware, the program is alive and well in Kent County. Members of the Central Delaware Detachment No. 768 Marine Corps League handed out more than 1,200 bags of toys Saturday, toys gathered from about 200 collection sites throughout the county.
Marine vet Dennis Sipple of Marydel was this year’s Toys for Tots coordinator in Kent County, a job he has filled for the past 17 years.
“It all started with a Raggedy Ann doll,” Sipple said. Back in 1947, Marine Reservist Maj. William Hendricks wanted to find a way to help war orphans and other less fortunate children in Los Angeles on Christmas. His wife had made several of the rag dolls, but knew of no way to distribute them, Sipple said. Hendricks organized the first Toys for Tots campaign, which collected more than 5,000 items.
The Marine Corps adopted Hendricks’ idea the following year, turning it into a community project for reservists. Artists at the Walt Disney studios designed the program’s train logo and characters from Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny soon were promoting the program. Celebrities and astronauts, from John Wayne to John Glenn, were enlisted as supporters. First ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush were national spokespersons and Michelle Obama provided personal support for all eight years of her tenure.
“We have to remember that it’s not just about the presents even though we’re here to talk about kids who don’t have them,” Obama said at a 2016 Toys for Tots sorting event, “but it’s about the spirit of service, the belief that in this country we should look out for each other.”
Toys for Tots is not just a three-month campaign; a lot goes on behind the scenes before any parent can pick up toys for their children, Sipple said.
Groups throughout the county, such as June Jam, the American Legion and Rotary clubs, collect donations and organize fundraisers throughout the year, he said.
As Kent County coordinator, he attends a yearly three-day training conference in Quantico, Va., where he learns about changes in the past year and gets a refresher on all the do’s and don’ts of running a campaign.
Collection boxes to replace worn out or damaged containers arrive in September and Sipple and about a dozen Marine Corps League members set about distributing them at businesses and offices, including Edgewell Personal Care, where Sipple works, Redner’s Food Warehouses, Pratt Insurance, Toys R Us, the Kent County Administrative Complex, and the Dover Post.
“We want to gather toys for children up to the age of 14,” Sipple said. He likes to place an emphasis on donations for the younger part of the spectrum, from newborns to age two, and for older kids, from age 10 to age 14.
“We don’t really have a lot of donations for those age groups,” he said.
Sipple also has an allowance, accumulated from cash donations, he uses to buy toys to add to those collected.
In one case, a poker tournament at Dover Downs netted $1,600, while the staff at Dover’s Greene Turtle Sports Bar and Grille used donations to buy toys, he said.
Although the national Toys for Tots organization suggests a limit of $30 per toy, he haunts sales and specials looking for deals to help stretch that allowance.
“That way I can buy more toys,” he explained.
About 10 days before Christmas, Sipple and others fan out across Kent County to pick up what’s in the collection boxes.
Getting the toys for distribution is an operation akin to a Marine deployment. Using their personal vehicles -- Marine Corps League members seem to own a lot of pickup trucks -- the toys are brought to a central warehouse.
This year, Kent County Levy Court provided a county-owned building on Starlifter Avenue, with the League leasing it for $1. The League gets to use the building until mid-January, with the county picking up the tab for heating and electricity.
The League faces a similar storage problem almost every year, Sipple said.
In the past, they’ve used the former Blockbuster Video on Route 8 and the vacant Value City in the Bay Court Plaza. The latter had water leaks that could have damaged the toys, he said.
As the toys arrive, they’re sorted by age group based on online applications, and placed in large storage bags. If a parent makes a specific request for a toy, League members try to match it as closely as possible.
Before long, the warehouse is filled with green plastic bags, stuffed with toys.
Only parents and legal guardians are permitted to sign up for the toy distribution, said Sharon Weiss, who has taken over the application process from her USMC veteran husband, George.
“We crosscheck the lists with others, such as churches, the Salvation Army and Caring Hearts, Helping Hands,” Weiss said. The goal is to ensure parents only receive gifts from one group, thus ensuring there are enough to go around.
“We try to make sure there are no double-dippers,” she said.
Applications are closed out once they reach a limit, but families are put on a standby list, just in case.
“We tell them there are no guarantees,” she said.
Nevertheless, Weiss spends a lot of time phoning these last-minute additions once their names come up, or if there are extra toys.
The toys were distributed Friday afternoon and Saturday, with parents lined up outside as soon as it opened. Within a few hours almost half the bags were gone.
Members of the Dover High School Junior AFROTC were on hand to help. So were the kids -- and grandkids -- of League members.
“This really means a lot,” Alissa Marcos of Townsend said as she received one of the toy bags. “This year we’ve been kind of struggling and any kind of help we can get helps us a lot.
“We’re grateful for it, we really are.”
According to the 2016 Toys for Tots annual report, the agency collected more than $280 million that year, with only about $8.7 million, or 3 percent, spent on fundraising and management.
When it’s all over, toys that weren’t distributed and those left over from the collection boxes are placed in storage and Sipple takes a short break to celebrate Christmas with his own family. He knows the months leading up to Christmas 2018 will pass quickly, but like the Marine Corps’ motto, Semper Fidelis, always faithful, he’ll be ready to do it again.
“It’s a lot of work,” Sipple acknowledged. “But I feel good when I see people come in here, people who really need it. You can see it on their faces.”