GOSHEN -- The giving spirit of the holidays was in the air at Concord Mall early Saturday morning as community members arrived in droves to donate gifts to the annual Toys for Tots with WNDU TV and the Marines collection drive.
Founded in 1947, Toys for Tots is a program run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, which distributes toys to children whose parents cannot afford to buy them gifts for Christmas.
Elkhart resident and retired Marine Laureano Santos currently coordinates the Toys for Tots program in Elkhart County.
"I've been part of this for 20-plus years, and things are looking really, really good this year," Santos said while taking a break from collecting toys at the main entrance to the mall Saturday morning. "We have a bunch of contributors that have been coming in, people from Elkhart, Goshen, Elkhart County has been bringing toys in nonstop. It's been a great year so far."
According to Santos, the local Toys for Tots program works with area nonprofits such as the Salvation Army to identify families who could use a little help providing gifts to their kids over the Christmas holiday, and then the program puts out the call to the community for donations.
"As far as the toys go, we take as many toys as we can get," Santos said, noting that the local program currently has about 150 drop-off sites located in and around Elkhart County. "Then what happens is, we work with the Salvation Army out of Elkhart and Goshen, and they do sign-ups, and then we also work with a couple other nonprofits like Oaklawn, etc. They give us a list. We find out how many kids we have, ages, boy or girl, etc., and then we find out how many toys we have in that age group. And then we divide it up and determine how many toys go to each child."
Kicking off at 7 a.m. and running through 10 a.m., Saturday's event also featured a special appearance by the Elkhart chapter of the Indian Motorcycle Riders Group, whose members dropped off a trailer-load of toys for the local program to distribute.
"It's about our community, about our families and about our friends that ride together on motorcycles. We come together as a family and friends to help the community in a lot of different ways, and this is just one way we do it at Christmas," IMRG member Terry Reamer, Elkhart, said of what brought the group out Saturday morning. "We love to celebrate Christmas, and obviously support our amazing Marines. It's just a blast. So here today we brought a trailer-load of toys, and those are all donated by members. This is our second year doing it, and I think it's important because many children don't get Christmas, and we want to make sure that happens for everybody."
Santos, speaking to what keeps him coming back year after year to head-up the program, was quick to agree.
"Once a Marine, always a Marine. We're here to serve and protect," Santos said. "Well, my protection time is done and over with. I'm retired. So now I still serve, but in a different way, serving and helping out the community and making it so children have a good Christmas, and trying to help the parents out when they're having a rough time."
For more information about the local Toys for Tots program or to become involved, visit the program website at elkhart-in.toysfortots.org.
John Kline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 315. Follow John on Twitter @jkline_TGN ___
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