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  • Tara Crutchfield

Toys for Tots

On September 17, at the Marines Toys for Tots National Training Conference in Washington, D.C., David Waller, Polk County coordinator, accepted the Coordinator of the Year for Civilian Volunteer Campaigns. Polk County Toys for Tots was recognized as well for having the top campaign of 2020. Waller, a retired law enforcement officer of 36 years, appreciates the recognition but says it’s the campaign that won. “It’s all the volunteers that make it happen,” he said.



Toys for Tots began in 1947 with Diane Hendricks, wife of Marine Corps Reserve Major Bill Hendricks. That year, under his wife’s instruction, to start an organization serving children in need, Major Hendricks and the Marines in his reserve unit collected and distributed 5,000 toys. Toys for Tots became a national community action program of Marine Reserve Sites in 1948. Hendricks, who served as a Director of Public Relations at Warner Brother Studios, enlisted the help of many of his celebrity friends for the program, including Walt Disney, who designed the organization’s first poster, now their logo. The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity in 1991. Today, the organization distributes an average of 18 million toys to 7 million children, according to their website.


After retiring from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, David Waller started his own business, Waller Pavers. He eventually sold the business, grew bored with retirement, and looked for another endeavor to fill his time.


“Being a cop back in the day, I worked on Christmas mornings, and you could tell a kid that got a toy from a kid that didn’t get a toy,” said Waller. “I was familiar with Toys for Tots because we had just helped get them some toys, but I really didn’t understand how it worked.” He read a local newspaper article seeking help to run the program and reached out. In 2016 he interviewed with former Polk County Toys for Tots coordinator Dorothy Dunlap and longtime volunteer George Overstreet who agreed Waller was a fit for the nonprofit. He began volunteering at the warehouse that Thanksgiving to learn the ropes and was named coordinator the following year.


A COMMUNITY EFFORT

According to Waller, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, headquartered in Triangle, Virginia, has approximately 813 programs throughout the United States. About 165 of those campaigns are run by actual Marines, including one in Tampa and Orlando. The Polk County Toys for Tots campaign is an LCO, or Local Community Organization made up of dedicated, unpaid volunteers. Since he took over as coordinator in 2016, Waller has focused on changing community perception of the program to that of an LCO. “It is a community effort,” he said. “We need the community’s help, the community to come volunteer, the community to donate toys – so that the community prospers.”


“What we’ve done the last few years is to continue to foster community support – businesses, volunteers, clubs, government agencies,” said the Polk County coordinator. “We have a fantastic partnership with all of our law enforcement, and the sheriff is one of our biggest supporters.”


Local businesses support the charity through donations, offering storage trailers for toy inventory, warehouse space for campaign operations, and becoming toy drop-off locations. Some 450 donation boxes are posted in business around the county, waiting to be filled to the brim with new toys. Waller named LEGOLAND, Publix Supermarkets, Publix Charities, Saddle Creek Logistics, Rooms to Go, CWI Logistics, Inc., and Central Tavern (part of the Linksters and Paddy Wagon Pub chain) as but a few of their invaluable campaign supporters.


The program is volunteer-driven, with a core group of between 20 and 30 volunteers serving throughout the year. That number climbs to over 250 during the holidays, especially on distribution day. Toys for Tots collects new, unwrapped toys to provide nonprofits and families in need over the holidays. Families and nonprofits apply online. Donated toys at their Auburndale warehouse are bagged and taken to distribution spots around the county. The family receives an email with details about when and where to pick up their toys, volunteers give them their items, and they are on their way to light up the holidays for a little one that might not have otherwise received a gift on Christmas morning.


Contests among high schools and government agencies have proven a reliable driver for donations. The first challenge involved area high schools competing to raise the most toys. Mulberry High School won three years running, with Lake Region High School taking the top spot last year. Waller said, “My goal was to get the high school students to learn a little bit about those less fortunate than themselves, learn about helping others, a little comradery, leadership, and competition.”


For years, the Polk County campaign spent donated funds to purchase batteries to include with toys. Waller had an idea. “I’m having to spend people’s donated money on batteries, and I don’t want to do that. I want to spend that money on toys,” he said. Thus the Battery Bucket Challenge in which the community can donate batteries to Toys for Tots was born, saving them hundreds of dollars on batteries over the last two years.



THE 2020 CAMPAIGN

At the beginning of 2020, Waller and his team met to discuss whether or not they would carry on with a campaign amid the pandemic. “Our decision, and one that we strongly believed in, is we were going to have a campaign.” They continued with the 2020 Polk County Toys for Tots Campaign and adjusted as needed. For volunteers unable to work in the warehouse, Waller and his team found ways to keep them involved with the program from home with tasks like putting labels on tags.


The 2020 campaign didn’t only manage to get by and meet needs; it thrived thanks to Waller, Toys for Tots volunteers, and the community at large. Through their signature donation boxes and community challenges, the Polk County Toys for Tots campaign distributed 57,716 toys to just under 15,000 children and raised over $70,000 in monetary donations.


“While we are under the foundation, every penny that gets donated to our campaign is spent on our campaign. It does not go to pay a foundation salary. It doesn’t pay a salary for any of us. Every penny stays right here in Polk County,” Waller said. “Anytime you donate money to an organization, you want it to stay locally, and we’re very proud of that.” This community support and generosity, paired with creative challenges and campaign adjustments surrounding the pandemic, earned the Polk County Toys for Tots team the designation of the top campaign for 2020 and David Waller, Coordinator of the Year for Civilian Volunteer Campaigns.


VOLUNTEERS NEEDED

Registration for this year’s Polk County Toys for Tots campaign opened on October 11. Asked how 2021 is shaping up thus far, Waller said, “We’ve been preparing upfront.” To mitigate any toy shortages or shipping bottlenecks, Waller and his team began purchasing toys in June – fishing poles, dollhouses, books, bikes, and the like.

David Cooper, Vice President of Operations for the Toys for Tots Foundation, Kim Waller, David Waller

Waller encourages the community to donate earlier in the holiday season so that toys can be prepared for their December 11 distribution day. A list of drop-off sites is available on the Toys for Tots website listed below. On the website, families and nonprofits can also apply for toys, businesses can sign up to be a toy drop box location, or folks can sign up to volunteer. Waller says volunteers are their most significant need at the moment, with a particular need for route drivers to deliver donation boxes and service them as they fill up.


“It’s a fantastic program for our community. I cannot say enough about the support that we get from the community, from law enforcement, particularly our sheriff,” the Polk County Toys for Tots coordinator said. As we concluded our interview, Waller offered a final sentiment, “Every child deserves a Christmas.”


Marines Toys for Tots

FB @PolkCountyToysForTots

(863) 292-8687


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