‘Tis the Season

December 2017 View more

The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation assists the U.S. Marine Corps with providing gifts to economically disadvantaged children at Christmas. Last year, the DuPage County Toys for Tots program distributed 62,842 toys to 26,201 kids through 56 different organizations.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Rita Kollias heads up the local chapter of this national program. “Like all things that are cool, the DuPage County Toys for Tots began in the late ’80s,” laughs Kollias. “John Meschi was collecting toys for his local Lombard church. I met John while I was on active duty in 2004. When John stepped down as DuPage coordinator, he asked me to take over.”

Kollias served in the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Corps for 10 years. She met her husband Brian while they were in the same unit, but didn’t start dating until 10 years later. They were married two years after that. “His patience with my obsession for this program is unparalleled,” Kollias says. “Not a lot of husbands would tolerate the late hours and working weekends. He rarely sees me during the Toys for Tots season, unless, of course, he is volunteering at an event with me.”

Local toy collection begins in October and lasts until mid- to late-December. Members of the community drop new, unwrapped toys in collection boxes at local businesses. Volunteers pick up the toys and store them in a donated warehouse, where they are sorted by age and gender.

“Every year, we search for 8,000 square feet of donated warehouse space, which allows us to spend monetary donations on buying toys and not on rent and utilities,” Kollias says. “Our program-to-support ratio is 97 cents to every dollar. My dream is to one day buy a warehouse so DuPage County Toys for Tots can have a permanent home.”

With the assistance of local social welfare agencies, church groups, and other local community agencies, Toys for Tots distributes the toys at Christmas. “Over the years, we have established close working relationships with many groups that are well qualified to identify the needy children in the community,” Kollias says.

The Toys for Tots campaign is broken down into several teams. Everyone with the program is a volunteer, and each works, Kollias says, with “the passion and vigor of a full-time job.” Her team includes drop site coordinator Eileen James, assistant campaign coordinator Linda Bellow, and distribution coordinator Ana Kacanowski.

“Lt. Cpl. Stephanie Kazior, currently stationed at Camp Pendleton, handles all of our fundraising events that request a uniformed Marine to speak at the event,” Kollias adds.

The team is rounded out by volunteer coordinator Judy Stresney, warehouse manager Don Kenyon, tech guy Mike Mahood and Matt and Sharon Passero, who handle all of the toy purchasing.

What’s the best thing about being involved with Toys for Tots?

“As a Marine, I love Toys for Tots because it directly connects the Marine Corps with the American public. It’s the only Department of Defense charitable endeavor that reaches out to the local community. Toys for Tots unites members of local communities for three months every year to distribute toys to families who otherwise wouldn’t have a Christmas,” Kollias says. “These toys make a tremendous difference in the lives of the children and families who receive them. It’s our silent way of telling them that somebody out there cares about you.”

To donate or find out more about Toys for Tots in DuPage County, visit dupage-il.toysfortots.org.