Toys for Tots at 75: Santa Delivers Christmas to 8.4 Million Kids

November 25, 2022Carl Prine
Santa toys for tots

Launched 75 years ago, the US Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program is poised to deliver more than 22 million presents to more than 8 million kids nationwide this year, thanks to civilian and military leaders like Sabrina Young (left) and Staff Sgt. Jessica Miranda in Indiana, and (bottom right) Staff Sgt. Nicholas Bucy, a reconnaissance team leader assigned to 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company, 4th Marine Division, who dressed up as Santa at the Fort Whiting National Guard Armory in Mobile, Alabama. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.

PENDLETON, Ind. — On Christmas morning, more than 40,000 needy Hoosier kids will wake up to presents from Santa, thanks to the US Marine Corps' Toys for Tots and a tornado of civilian energy known across Indiana as Sabrina Young.

A career nurse from Indianapolis who never served a day in the Corps, Young’s the co-coordinator of the Toys for Tots program in central Indiana. It’s an initiative launched by Marine Col. William “Bill” Hendricks 75 years ago in Hollywood that today distributes more than 22 million toys nationwide to 8.4 million kids. However, Young’s chapter is different from most of the 839 other chapters.

Although the nonprofit Marine Toys for Tots Foundation was established in 1991, the initiative is commanded by a Marine three-star, and troops helm most local chapters. They're often active-duty Marines on I&I — inspector and instructor duty — supporting reservists in communities across the country.

Here, the Toys for Tots command is split between Young and Marine Staff Sgt. Jessica Miranda, whose day job is running the supply section for a reserve unit at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence Township. 

But during the hectic yuletide season, Miranda’s clock switches to Sabrina Standard Time.

“There’s a call from Sabrina. The gym? Sabrina. Dinner? Sabrina. My wake-up alarm? Sabrina,” the staff non-commissioned officer from El Paso, Texas, said.

In a Vincennes University warehouse in Pendleton, Indiana, on Tuesday, Nov. 22, Marine Staff Sgt. Jessica Miranda unpacks wooden toys donated by a local woodcarver destined for several of the 40,000 local children served by the Toys for Tots program. Photo by Carl Prine/ Coffee or Die Magazine.

On Tuesday, Nov. 22, Young and Miranda stood inside a mammoth warehouse here donated to Toys for Tots yearlong by Vincennes University.

With crates stuffed with presents rising nearly three stories above them, the women insisted to Coffee or Die Magazine that their unique partnership benefits not only Indiana children but the I&I mission of prepping Marine reservists for battle.

Miranda’s detail is small, with only 15 Marines. It’s co-located with another section, and that brings the total number of activated volunteers to 25, so there aren’t many bodies they can throw at Toys for Tots.

Young’s cell phone, Rolodex, and long hours at the warehouse fill the gap and free the Marines to concentrate on their core mission to the Corps.

“Sabrina has been a blessing. She allows us to keep doing our regular jobs,” Miranda said.

US Marines with 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company, 4th Marine Division, prepare for a Toys for Tots campaign at Fort Whiting National Guard Armory in Mobile, Alabama, Oct. 22, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Juan Diaz.

The staff sergeant pointed to Young’s tirelessness and three decades of experience in Hoosier philanthropy — fundraising for the Indiana National Guard, staging the Veterans Day and St. Patrick’s Day parades, supporting House of Grace Films — for why it all comes together.

Since Young came aboard the program nine years ago, the number of kids getting presents has quadrupled. 

In 2013, Toys for Tots barely extended out of Marion County, home to Indianapolis. Today, it delivers presents to children across the entire region.

“But there's an irritation that a civilian is running this, and it's your guys’ charity,” Young said. “I've seen this. I've heard it.” 

US Marines with the aerial acrobatic team the Blue Angels (and Santa) bring presents for a Toys for Tots donation Dec. 3, 20212, on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, in New Jersey. The Marines brought more than $700,000 in toy and book donations on their C-130 plane, nicknamed ‘Fat Albert,’ from donation points in Atlanta and Washington, DC. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Aaron Hostutler.

Indiana corporations and charities hear a lot from Young because she’s constantly pushing them to help Hoosier children.

She and Miranda start pointing out the boxes emblazoned with the WISH-TV logo, the local television station that’s a prime sponsor of the program. So is home improvement giant Menards, which strongly urges customers to donate purchases and supplies Toys for Tots with bags tough enough to store stacks of children’s books.

The box cutters and gloves? They're all from Fastenal. And Young and Miranda tick off the free labor they get from local volunteers, everyone from Plainfield High School students to cloud computing titan Salesforce.

But despite their best efforts, Miranda and Young said they need more toys for babies. The program struggles annually to deliver toys to tots under the age of 2, as well as those between 10 and 14 years of age.

“For some reason people don't think about the babies,” Young said, adding that 700 rattles would mean a lot to many local babies born into poverty. 

A pair of US Marines, Cpl. Braydon Miller (left), 23, a diesel mechanic from Cambridge City, and Cpl. Nicholas Richardson, 28, a network administrator from Martinsville, take a break from packaging Toys for Tots presents in Pendleton, Indiana. Photo by Carl Prine/ Coffee or Die Magazine.

Although Miranda runs warehouses in the Corps, she’s not allowed to operate the forklifts. Young is. But neither woman is supposed to touch the warehouse’s robots, which are usually piloted by Vincennes University staffers and students.

“These are our robots, the Marines,” Young said, pointing to a pair of NCOs toiling in a large bay nearby.

Santa's elves are activated reservists Cpl. Nicholas Richardson, 28, of Martinsville, and Cpl. Braydon Miller, 23, from Cambridge City.

They told Coffee or Die they’re proud to help out. Richardson is the father of a 5-year-old, and Miller has a 2-year-old toddler and a baby on the way.

“We didn't have a lot growing up,” Richardson, a network administrator in the Corps, said. “And if it wasn’t for organizations like Toys for Tots, like churches doing their thing, there are probably some Christmases where I wouldn't have gotten anything.”

Lt. Gen. David Bellon, left, commander of the United States Marine Corps Reserve and Marine Corps Forces - South, speaks about the Toys for Tots program during a celebration of its 75th anniversary, at Marine Barracks Washington in Washington, DC, on June 3, 2022. Toys for Tots aims to provide happiness and hope to disadvantaged children through the gift of a new toy during the Christmas holiday season. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Briana Vera.

That sort of devotion from young Marines is what their commandant, Gen. David H. Berger, wants to hear.

In a Nov. 22 message to all hands, Berger urged his Marines and sailors to embrace “the challenge of service” during this year's Toys for Tots campaign.

“As I have said before, there is glory in sacrifice. There is glory in comradeship. There is glory in service to our nation,” the four-star said.

Staff Sgt. Miranda told Coffee or Die that’s what she’s taken from Toys for Tots, too. To her, it's helped broaden her as a Marine, molding her into a better leader for when she returns to the fleet after three years on I&I duty.

She’s already volunteered to run the program with Young next year, too.

“It’s getting me involved in the community and learning about Indiana and the people and the surrounding communities,” Miranda said.

Read Next: ‘I Believe That We Will Win’ Cheer Was Born at the Naval Academy 

Carl Prine
Carl Prine

Carl Prine is a senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He previously worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

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