Toys For Tots Struggles To Reach Its Holiday Goal

Santa has a pretty primitive workshop at the Gulfport Seabee base. The corner warehouse is where Sgt. Jaime Rodriguez is the chief elf.

"When I grew up, I was poor," the Marine Corps Reservist said. "I remember my mother was having to go to Toys For Tots. And it's kind of been a personal thing for me because I was given to, and now I can give back."

Eight months ago, the Marine Corps reservist was at war in Iraq, defending himself against a barrage of enemy attacks.

"We had some really bad times there," the sergeant remembered. "There were some good times, too."

One of those good times actually focused on the Toys For Tots fight back in Gulfport.

"I remember us sitting in downtown Baghdad, talking about what we were going to do for Toys For Tots this year," he said.

Despite the sergeant's best efforts, the Marine Corps Reserve's holiday crates look pretty empty. And Christmas is just two weeks away.

"We need more help from the community because we're trying to get all the kids covered," the sergeant said.

WLOX News collects Toys For Tots. The station puts them near our weather office, so you can see what's been donated. Our collections are down just a bit. And we're not alone. According to Marine Corps Reservists, their annual toy drive has collected just 5,000 holiday gifts. Last year, they passed out 15,000 toys.

The reservists always fill their Salvation Army orders first. In years past, they've been able to give three large toys and one stocking stuffer to every child who needed help in Biloxi, Gulfport, and Pascagoula. This year, donations are down. So the reserves are barely able to reach the Salvation Army's base goal of one large toy and one stocking stuffer per child.

"I tell you what," Sgt. Rodriguez said. "I'm non-stop during the day, I'm racking my brain. What can we do? What can we do better? How can we get the word out better?"

One thing the Marines can do is go shopping. So this Sunday, after the KB store closes, the reservists and their families will go on a shopping spree through the Prime Outlet toy store. They have a thousand dollars to spend on gifts that will benefit the Toys For Tots program.

Toys For Tots helps a lot more than Salvation Army applicants. Several churches turn to the Marine Corps Reserves to bring joy to families who unexpectedly suffer during the holidays.

Places like Grace Temple Baptist Church in Gulfport count on the reserve unit's generosity.

Roslyn Taylor is a youth leader at the 15th Street church. "I believe it's absolutely essential," she said of the Marine Corps' Christmas project. "I know for a fact last year, if it had not been for the Marines, the families that were were able to deliver to wouldn't have had anything."

This Christmas, Grace Temple Baptist Church has a list of 50 children who won't see Santa unless people donate gifts to Toys For Tots.

If you'd like to make a donation, bring your gift to WLOX, or to any one of 90 drop off locations across South Mississippi.