"Semper Fi," Kevin Mallon said to a group of Marine Corp Veterans standing outside of a Walmart one early winter day five years ago. The men were members of the local Marine Corps League, 676 Dramis Detachment, which covers all of Cape May County. They were collecting donations for Toys For Tots, a philanthropic organization run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. As a former Marine (if such a thing exists) and as a veteran, Mallon began to speak with the men about their shared experiences, and about the League. Among other things, the League provides services for veterans and their families, raises money for disabled vets through weekly collections on the Wildwood Boardwalk, offers scholarships, and organizes Toys For Tots every Christmas. Shortly after meeting outside of Walmart, Mallon became a member of the League, and last year found himself at the helm of this immense holiday operation.
Toys For Tots was founded in 1947 by Major Bill Hendricks in Los Angeles. That first year he collected five thousand toys to distribute to local children. The program was quickly adopted by the Marine Reserves and turned into a national movement, with Reserve Centers across the country conducting toy collection and distribution campaigns for the Christmas of 1948. By 1949, celebrities like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Mickey Mouse began endorsing Toys For Tots, earning its own theme song by 1956, sung by Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Vic Damone. It wasn’t until 1996 however, that the Marine Forces Reserve ensured that all fifty states would participate in Toys for Tots by allowing Marine Corps League Detachments and select local community organizations to conduct toy collection campaigns. Last year 18 million toys were distributed to 7 million needy children throughout the United States.
Five years ago Kevin Mallon was veteran who was disabled (though not a disabled veteran, a distinction which he found very important to make). He was looking for a project where he could give back to the community. Toys for Tots was the right fit.
"I grew up in Philly, the youngest of eight," says Mallon, remembering that Christmas can be a difficult time for children in families that are struggling financially. Dave Burton ran the program for twelve years and Mallon began assisting him in the toy collection. Last year he took over. Beginning in October, members of the Dramis Detachment and volunteers bring Toys for Tots boxes to local businesses that agree to participate. In Cape May County there are close to one hundred drop-off locations, including Congress Hall. Between November and December volunteers and veterans stand outside of department stores, groceries stores and other public places collecting donations and spreading the word about Toys For Tots. They also receive some monetary donations from Toys For Tots Headquarters, located in Quantico, Virginia.
"Most of the toys we get are for kids ages four to ten, but we distribute toys to infants and teenagers as well," says Mallon. With the donation money from headquarters and local fundraisers, he is able to accommodate for the ages that are often overlooked. Mallon sites Beachcomber Camp Ground and organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and the Cape Classic Motorcycle Club as major monetary contributors.
Around December 13th, volunteers go to the drop-off locations to collect the toys and bring them to Uries Waterfront Restaurant in Wildwood. Mallon's brother is a kitchen manager there, and since the restaurant is seasonal each year they donate their space in order to have a place for parents and guardians to pick out toys for their children. Between December 16th and December 23rd, from 2pm to 7pm those in need living in Cape May County may go to Uries and pick out six presents per child. Each child also receives a coloring book, crayons, and a stuffed animal.
Those passing through the vestibule of Congress Hall during the holiday season may notice two perfectly wrapped cardboard boxes flanking the doorway. One, a food collection for the Cape May Food Closet. The other, the Toys For Tots drop-off box. The first weekend in December every year is the Tree Lighting Ceremony on Congress Hall’s Grand Lawn. As huge crowds comparable to those on the Fourth of July pack into the Ballroom to hear the sounds of the Congress Hall Holiday Choir, Members of Congress Hall’s Staff accept donations for both organizations. Toys and canned goods fill the entrance to the Ballroom, and a large silver bowl fills with monetary donations from generous guests. Representatives from the Dramis Detachment are always present, graciously accepting the donations. This year’s Tree Lighting is December 1st, 2017, with two concerts at 5pm and 7:30pm.
If you find yourself at Congress Hall this holiday season, or plan to attend the Tree Lighting Ceremony, please bring an unwrapped toy or non-perishable food item for these organizations. With the help of many, Cape May can remain always faithful to the true meaning of Christmas.