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Toys for Tots brightens Christmas for children in need

Tens of thousands of children will receive gifts this Christmas thanks to donations to the Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots program.

The San Diego County operation served 57,000 children last year alone. About the same number are expected to receive gifts this year, but an official count is not yet available.

Likely a result of a tough economy this year, many families still were asking to receive toys in the weeks before Christmas.

Toys for Tots works with about 300 organizations throughout the county to distribute the toys. Groups must be legitimate nonprofit organizations with proper tax codes to receive the toys.

While the Marine reservists who organize Toys for Tots would like to help every child in need, they must limit their outreach to those who are registered through organizations well in advance of Christmas.

Typically, the children in need already are connected to an approved organization such as Health and Human Services offices throughout the county.

“We cannot work with individual families,” said Michael Zacker, a retired Marine sergeant major who just spent his ninth year volunteering with Toys for Tots. “It makes more sense for them to go to the organization where they’re already getting help.”

On Black Friday -- the Friday after Thanksgiving --Marines and volunteers begin distributing toys from their headquarters near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. A large tent houses the toys, divided by tall wooden walls made by DPR Construction especially for the toy drive.

Each section is labeled with a gender and age range. As new toys come in, they are divided into the different categories.

Children of all ages are eligible for gifts. On average, Toys for Tots aims to provide one big-ticket item, one stocking stuffer and one board game, book or stuffed animal to each child.

Depending on how many toys are donated for children in each age group, the number of toys might vary. However, monetary donations from individuals and the national Toys for Tots organization help fill the gaps.

“It’s hard to get that 12 to 14 gap, but that’s what we do,” Zacker said

To get a head start, Toys for Tots reserves some donations from the previous year to give out before new donations arrive. Especially with such a large operation, they must start early to ensure the presents make it under the tree on Christmas morning.

The toys reserved from the year before are stored in a warehouse during the off-season. However, the warehouse used for San Diego’s toys no longer will be available.

Zacker said he is looking for a new location.

He also is in search of donations -- financial or in-kind -- to reduce overhead costs for vehicles.

The Marines pick up donated toys from various collection sites. But Zacker said they are not permitted to use government vehicles, which means they must rent half a dozen cargo vans every year.

"That’s a place we could really use help," he said.

"Toys for Tots back in Virginia has to pick up the tab for this stuff."

And every dollar spent on overhead is one less dollar spent on a toy.

But for now, the primary focus is getting gifts to the children.

Paul Krumenacker, a Marine reservist who helps with Toys for Tots and also owns the San Diego-based armed services consulting company Brightspear, knows first-hand how important the toys are to the children who receive them.

While he was volunteering at a local school, a student recognized his Marine Corps uniform and knew that the Marine Reservists made his Christmas a little better.

Krumenacker said: “He said ‘Thank you for all the toys. You guys give the best toys.’”

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