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Toys for Tots coordinator: 'No child in Anne Arundel County goes without Christmas'

The local Toys For Tots distribution was held Saturday morning during an event at the Anne Arundel Community College.

Lego sets. Footballs. Bikes. Drones. Perfume. Board games.

Thousands of these gifts were stacked into shoulder-height piles at the Anne Arundel Community College on Saturday for the annual Toys for Tots drive. Volunteers moved quickly through the piles like treasure hunters digging through piles of gold looking for the perfect relic.

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One volunteer eyed a Star Wars Lego set on the floor, one of only a few left in the older kids toy room. He quickly stuffed it into a black plastic bag. Those are used to conceal the toys from the prying eyes of children.

Toys for Tots coordinator Janice Howlin stood in the middle of the busy madness. The Edgewater resident directed volunteers and talked with families. It was a hectic Saturday, and toys will be gifted through Christmas Eve, but Howlin said she was happy to be part of the months of work and controlled chaos.

“I was always privileged,” Howlin said. “I gotta give back.”

Howlin and the other volunteers are working for the regional program of the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots program. Ever year the Marine Corps and local groups put out red and white boxes in which people can drop off toys.

The variety of available toys stretched from small Marvel superhero figures to larger gifts like bicycles or even drones, volunteers said. The toys are sorted into age-appropriate piles, making it easier for volunteers — who are told the ages and number of children in the family — to select toys. They choose a couple of larger toys alongside some smaller stocking stuffers per child.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Pete Smith is the regional coordinator for the program. The former Anne Arundel County councilman has been part of the program for years, helping volunteers gather toys, deliver them and then do it again next year. The Marines started Toys for Tots in 1947, and 548 million toys have been delivered since that date, according to the Marine Corps website.

There are between 250,000 and 400,000 toys given out each year between Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George’s counties, Smith said.

“No child in Anne Arundel County goes without Christmas,” he said. “I just believe we have a purpose, and I’m living mine.”

Delivering those thousands of toys takes a lot of work. Volunteers pick up the filled donation boxes and bring them to one of three warehouses for sorting. Once the toys are sorted, they are prepared for different donation paths. A large group of those toys are brought to Anne Arundel Community College where families can line up to pick up donations. Other toys are prepared for direct home deliveries.

Heather Watson has done pretty much everything as part of the program. The founder of the Pasadena Jeepers Club started by placing and picking up donations boxes. Now she is part of the toy drive from beginning to end with toy picking, sorting and delivery.

“This is one of our most favorite charities,” Watson said. “It is Christmas time. Every kid wants Christmas.”

All of this work is done to benefit families like Kristle Autrey, who picked up toys alongside her 2-year-old son Emmanuel.

Autrey said she has had to stop working to go on disability, making it hard to secure toys for Christmas. With the Toys for Tots program, she was given a crayola set, perfume and other toys for Emmanuel and her two older daughters.

She was happy to see some toys that her older daughters might appreciate. Emmanuel peeked into the bag as well, but Autrey wasn’t worried.

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“He won’t remember,” she said. “It means a lot. They can have a little bit of Christmas.”

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