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Family Atmosphere Surrounds Chicago Toys For Tots Program

Nine 3-inch binders sit upright on the left side of Nellie Ortiz’ L-shaped desk, completely eliminating the possibility of using that space to write or work on a computer.

In those binders are 622 requests that have been sent to the Chicago Toys For Tots program from nonprofit organizations throughout Cook County – asking for toys that they can hand out to deserving children.

Click here for a slideshow.
Click here for a slideshow.

Ortiz has been involved with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys For Tots Foundation since 1982, making her the longest-standing worker for the Chicago program.

“I first got involved because I thought it was a worthy cause,” Ortiz said. “I really enjoy seeing how happy needy and deserving children are when they receive toys.”

The Chicago program is run out of the Marine reserve unit in Albany Park and approximately 20 Marines work under Ortiz and the Chicago Toys For Tots Coordinator, Staff Sgt. George Dixon.

“We call her ‘Staff Mom’ sometimes,” Dixon said of Ortiz. “We’re like a family here.”

Dixon is the motor transportation maintenance chief for the unit and said his Marines must balance the Toys For Tots program with still fulfilling their Marine duties.

“I’m handling a lot but I have to give credit to the guys working with me,” he said. “This program takes precedence right now, but if something happens I have to put my Tots For Tots hat down until [the Marine duties] are taken care of. At the same time, if I know I have to bag toys for 300 kids I can send out an all-call and it’s let’s head to the drill deck and take care of the mission.”

Sgt. Chris Stagg is the assistant coordinator for Chicago Toys For Tots and embarkation chief at the unit.

“I deal with the transportation of personnel and equipment,” Stagg said. “I also deal with logistical support at all the different exercises.”

Stagg coordinates events, public relations and drop sites for the Cook County program, incorporating his logistics background by formulating numerous excel sheets in order to remain organized for Toys For Tots.

One of his documents tracks the amount of toys that have already been given out to the nonprofit organizations that sent their requests in October. Between Nov. 27 and Nov. 30 more than 14,000 toys were handed out from the base, answering 75 requests, Stagg said.

Ortiz said there are some requests that don’t have all the necessary documents, such as missing the tax form that proves the request is coming from a nonprofit organization. If all other requests can be taken care of in the order they came in then the program will try to send toys to the unfinished requests as well, Ortiz said.

The pickup process is simple. As each request is filled the next organization’s request is sorted based on the amount of children the organization caters to and the age and gender demographic. Orders are then bagged and set aside for pickup. The organization is then notified to come and get their order.

Sgt. Jermaine Spencer is maintenance management chief at the unit and distribution manager for Toys For Tots, but said he’d rather be known for his comic relief.

Spencer facilitates all pickups at the unit and said he’s “there to keep the mood light, happy and to make sure everyone is working together. It’s really all about the kids.”

Chicago Toys For Tots is the second-largest program in the country, right behind New York City. The program averages over 125,000 children per year that it distributes toys to, Dixon said.

This year it has been projected that approximately 165,000 toys will be given out, with pickups being conducted by Spencer and other men working at the unit from now until Christmas.

When asked how many more years she will remain involved, Ortiz didn’t have a definite answer.

“I quit every year but then somehow find myself back here,” she said. “So I guess I’ll be here until I croak.”

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