To put it simply, it was a day for smiles.
More than 2,500 children were greeted by Marines and given toys Saturday at the annual Kitsap County Toys For Tots party at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds. Hundreds of parents with little ones in tow began lining up shortly before 10 a.m. to wind their way through President’s Hall, to get a toy and have a private sitting with Santa.
After verification that they were low income, each family was given tickets for the children and proceeded to the center of the room where volunteers asked the children their ages and went behind curtains to find the appropriate toys. When the volunteers returned, their arms were filled with toys that were bagged and handed off to the kids, or sometimes to their parents.
“The crowd’s a bit smaller than normal,” said Sam Martin, of the Marine Corps League which organized the Kitsap toy drive. “So we’re able to give each child more than one toy.”
Lt. Col. Stephen Keane, commander of the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion at Bangor, said 26 Marines and 13 of their families were on hand to help hand out toys and keep the children entertained while they waited for their turn at the toy tables.
His wife, Vanessa, said she brought their son, Rowan, and daughter, Mia, out to help because she wanted their kids to see how fortunate they are.
“This is a good lesson in how lucky we are as a family,” she said. “And I like to teach my children about volunteering and helping out in the community.”
Gunnery Sergeant Albert Pardo, who has been a Marine for 18 years, was there in his dress uniform, along with his family, too. His wife and their children, ages 15, 12, and 10 were busy handing out toys, while he checked on the stock, behind the curtains.
“This is a way for us to reach out to those in our community that need assistance,” he said. “I like being able to help out.”
Early on Saturday, he helped one young boy who wanted a bicycle.
“You should have seen the smile on his face,” Pardo said. “His face just lit up.”
For Kim and Darryl Hemphill, of Port Orchard, this was their first experience with Toys For Tots.
“We are foster parents and the foster agency we work with recommended that we come here,” Kim Hemphill said. “They told us this event is for families like ours to take part in.”
The Hemphills have two biological sons, Angelo, 7, and Jacob, 14. And they have three foster children, one who is 2 and two 1- year-olds.
On their list was “anything baby doll” for their 2 -year-old foster daughter.
“She just loves to play with dolls,” Hemphill said. “And our other little ones like anything musical.”
With their sack filled, the Hemphills headed to the parking lot, thankful that they had come.
“This will help our Christmas be merrier, for sure,” said Jacob.
Another family, the Kearneys from Bremerton, waited about an hour to get their toys and see Santa. Their kids, Alyse, 2, and Aniyah, 6, were patient as mom and dad spoke to the volunteers asking about a skateboard, a science kit and Barbie items.
“This is a wonderful thing,” said dad Thurman Kearney. “It will definitely help out our holidays.”
As for mom, she’s not even thinking about what’s on her list, said Earlene Kearney.
“Maybe a vacation,” she laughed.
At noon, folks were still in line, waiting for toys. Boy Scouts from Silverdale Troop 1506 were helping select toys from behind the curtain.
“We’re here to help out however we can,” said Shane Gavin, 13 of Silverdale. “We want to make sure that all the kids, even the less fortunate ones, have a good Christmas.”
Likewise, said Chance Landis, 12, also of Silverdale.
“We want them to be happy and have the best Christmas ever,” he said.
Besides donating their time at the party, both Scouts said they also donated toys for the toy drive.
“I went with my mom when she shopped and gave some toys,” said Shane Gavin.
“And I texted all my friends to give toys, too,” said Chance Landis.
This was Marine Sgt. Major Steven Burkett’s first experience with Toys For Tots. As he explained, usually it’s the Marine Corps Reserves that organize the drive. But because the Bangor area doesn’t have a reserve unit, the Marine Corps League, (retired Marines) take it on.
“Their numbers aren’t that many, so they need some help from active Marines and we’re happy to help out,” he said. “Just seeing the joy on the childrens’ faces makes our holidays better. It’s a joy to help out, especially at this time of year.”
Toy donations were up this year, according to Martin. The Marine League continued to collect toys through Dec. 18. Those toys and the toys that remained after Saturday’s event are given to local social service agencies to hand out to low income children.