When a doctor told a mother that her son suffering from a muscular diseases needed a bicycle to keep his muscles moving, she turned to the Toys for Tots for help.
She couldn’t afford a bicycle, so she went to the organization’s toy distribution event a couple of years ago.
“When she got there, she was about the third to the last parent there, and we had one bike left. We handed that bike to her, and she crumbled right there in front of us,” recalled Herb Roshell, captain of the Toys for Tots efforts in Land O’ Lakes and part of Lutz.
“It’s those kinds of experiences that keep us empowered to do this,” he said.
The United States Marine Corps Reserve has been doing this for more than 65 years, creating a national program that distributes toys to needy children during the holidays.
In Roshell’s area alone, the program has distributed to more than 500 children from nearly 400 families last year.
Each child gets two to three toys, plus games for the family and stocking stuffers.
To keep up with this year’s demand, the program is back with its familiar toy drop-off boxes in various businesses in the community.
Roshell estimates that around 100 locations will sign up for the boxes, and collect new, unwrapped toys for children of various ages.
The U.S. Postal Service also will collect toys that residents leave out by their mailboxes on Dec. 5.
Toys will be distributed Dec. 19 at the Land O’ Lakes Community Center, 5401 Land O’ Lakes Blvd., beginning at 8 a.m.
Those toys might not seem like much in the big picture, but to a mother struggling to provide for her family or a child who sees their peers with gifts, it means a lot.
“If we didn’t have it, it would really hurt our community a lot,” Roshell said.
His wife, Stephanie, knows that firsthand. As a young single mother, she used Toys for Tots when she moved and found out her job had been eliminated. She now spends her time helping those in need, and recognizes the empowerment of simple kindnesses.
“I was homeless as a teenager and vowed that if I ever came out of my poverty state that I would never, ever forget about the children and the youth that are struggling,” Stephanie said. “I’ve stood in their shoes before, and I know personally how it made me feel, so I want them to feel that same sense of gratification that I felt.”
Parents or guardians who utilize Toys for Tots feel like they’re shopping when the toys are selected.
At the distribution center Dec. 19, they get assistance from “deputized elves” to help pick out just the right gift for their children. The “elves” are volunteers who meet with regional coordinator Bob Loring, and pledge to offer support and encouragement at the event to help parents choose gifts.
Just being able to provide some holiday cheer for their family boosts family bonds, according to the Roshells.
“It bridges that gap in the family, so the child is looking to that parent as still being that hero,” Stephanie said.
For those parents to remain heroes, the Roshells and many others in the Toys for Tots program work hard to make each year a success.
In the Land O’ Lakes area they expect to collect 1,700 to 2,000 items for distribution. And, unless there’s a large need elsewhere or they have a surplus, the toys donated within the community, stay here.
While individuals and businesses are generous with donations, there are specific needs each year that pose a challenge.
Children between 8 and 12, especially boys, usually receive the least donations, Herb Roshell said.
Boys that age like handheld games and girls enjoy makeup kits, and Toys for Tots wants to make sure there are enough to go around.
The postal service pickup is an important method of toy collection, but response has dropped off in recent years.
The postal service doesn’t cover the organization’s postage anymore, so it’s up to them to get the word out about the Dec. 5 collection date.
Helping those in need makes Dec. 19 a special day for families who wouldn’t otherwise have presents for their children.
And, it’s pretty special for the Toys for Tots family, too, since they get to see their efforts pay off with a bounty of gifts going to local homes, making families’ holidays a little brighter.
For people like Stephanie Roshell, who has been on both sides, it’s an important part of the holiday season.
Published November 25, 2015