Spirit honors go to Marines with toys
By Emily Peck
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Ten-year supporter Jerry Turner hails it as "one of the most amazing nonprofit organizations in existence." More than 10,000 children in the Tennessee Valley know it as Santa Claus every Dec. 25.
It's Toys for Tots. The men behind it are the Marines of Battery K in Huntsville, and for the past 20 years, they have worked hard to make sure disadvantaged children enjoy Christmas.
"When the families come in and you see the tears in their eyes and they tell you their kids are going to have Christmas, sometimes you have to turn and wipe away a tear of your own. It's beautiful," said local Toys for Tots coordinator Sgt. Ronald W. Williams II.
Battery K will receive the H.J. Heimlich Humanitarian Award on Wednesday during this year's Spirit of America Festival at Point Mallard Park.
The award is reserved for those who have saved or attempted to save a life, or who have contributed to the betterment of mankind.
Battery K is a part of the Marine Corps' national program Toys for Tots.
"The first time I saw a family receive Christmas as part of Toys for Tots, it was incredible," says Turner, who works to involve local businesses with the program. "The Marines really care about the kids."
Every November and December, these troops sacrifice their weekends to bagging and sorting toys.
In addition to the day job of being a Marine, they often work from 5 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday.
For Williams, the process sometimes "takes away everything else."
As coordinator, Williams not only spends weekends bagging toys, but also receives phone calls in the wee hours of morning and organizes fundraising events.
He also pastors New Beginning Revivals Center in Madison and Miracle Tabernacle in Florida.
Williams is no stranger to a life of service.
"My dad was always serving the community and was never at home," said Williams, whose father was one of the first blacks to serve on a county commission in Florida.
"I'm just a community service type of person," he said.
It was in this sense of service that Maj. Bill Hendricks began Toys for Tots in 1947. Hendricks' wife, Diane, handcrafted a Raggedy Anne doll and asked her husband to give it to a needy child at Christmas.
When Hendricks could find no organization that distributed toys, he decided to create one. Along with a group of Marine reservists in Los Angeles, Hendricks collected and delivered 5,000 toys to disadvantaged children.
The project was so successful that the Marine Corps adopted Toys for Tots and took it nationwide. It has been in operation for the past 59 years.
Toys for Tots means more than just a toy at Christmas. The hope that the charity inspires can change lives.
Williams said he once met a Marine whose success was largely a product of Toys for Tots.
"His life at home was tough. He said the only highlight of his year was going to the Marines and receiving a toy."
Today that Marine is a gunnery sergeant with a wife and children.
This sense of accomplishment is what the program hopes to foster, said Williams.
The operation not only strives to help families in need, but also inspires a spirit of giving in the community. The response from the Tennessee Valley is incredible, said Williams.
"From big businesses to Girl Scout troops, you name it, they participate. Some years, you don't know where the help is going to come from, but it always comes."
Toys for Tots even inspires children to share in the "gift of giving," Williams said. Some children save their allowance money all year for the purpose of giving another child a Christmas.
For Williams, this kind of selflessness is exactly what being a Marine is all about.
"What these kids do for each other represents one of the great traditions of the Marine Corps — a man laying down his life for his friend," he said.
In William's eyes, this spirit of giving makes the Tennessee Valley an extraordinary community.
"I just want to say thank you for all the support and the support yet to come and to hail this community. The giving is so great and so needed every year," he said.
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