I must be the world’s biggest Grinch: it’s December 21, and I just pulled the federal tax form 990 off of the website of Toys for Tots, the massive children’s Christmas toy distribution charity run by the United States Marine Corps. I insist, I am not trying to take down Toys for Tots right at the cusp of their signature holiday! I just wanted to see how their financial operation looks. As one does when one is a cranky reporter.
To be honest, it looks pretty ship-shape. I suppose this is not a surprise, given that it is run by the US Marine Corps. True, their top executives make what seems to me to be a lot of money for running a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization—CEO Henry Osman makes $257, 900, and the vice president and secretary each make around $150K—but it’s a big organization, with toy donations valued at around $245 million and corporate sponsorships from Toys R Us and others. Someone does have to helm this thing.
It is the mission of Toys for Tots and other similar holiday-season gift drives that has always irked me. In TfT’s own words on the 990 form, “The mission and purpose of Marine Toys for Tots Foundation in[sic] providing a tangible sign of hope to economically disadvantaged children at Christmas.” This sounds benevolent. But kids who live in poverty live with daily privations, neglect, and risks that no Thomas the Tank Engine toy will fix. Think what could be done for these kids with $245 million, I’ve said. Their parents could get housing upgrades, fuel assistance, or more food stamps; their communities could get afterschool and summer programs funded to keep them off the block and out of harm’s way; their schools could get libraries and gyms.
The concept of solidarity, which my organized-labor background has wired into me, dictates that helping people is fine as long as the help is wanted, is effective, and is free of drama or self-congratulation. This concept has seemed to me to be at odds with the concept of charity; and the holiday gift drives have seemed to me to be a perfect example of why charity and solidarity are mutually exclusive.
The holiday toy drives, I’ve said, showcase the worst of the American holiday spirit: they displace middle class people’s generosity on to raising poor kids’ morale instead of raising their actual standard of living. Meanwhile, they are enriching the retail companies that still get to make massive profits from selling—at full price—cheaply made goods produced in sweatshops overseas to be donated to these drives. I’ve even said, in my own overblown moments, that by siphoning money and effort that could go toward doing actual good for poor kids into buying them Thomas the Tank Engine toys, the holiday toy drives may be reinforcing poverty. It’s a transfer of wealth, all right—but in the usual direction of transferring cash from middle class and working families’ wallets into wealthy companies’ coffers.
I have said all this. But, until now, I have never had to figure out what to do about it for my family. This is the first year I have been directly approached to participate in such a drive, through my daughter’s Girl Scouts troop. I received an email from our troop leader saying that the girls had elected to “adopt” for the holidays a pair of sisters, aged 4 and 7, who are living in the foster care system here in our city. So I was forced to swallow my first reaction of mild acid-reflux repulsion and actually take my kid—who only wears hand-me-downs and clothes from local used clothing stores—out shopping for some other kid’s holiday present.
We went to a slightly-discounted offshoot of a fancy big department store, the kind that is located on the ground level of the mall to indicate ground-level prices. My daughter, whose normal attitude toward shopping is demonstrated by her begging to be left in the car while I go in and pick out her wardrobe, suddenly got a determined look on her face and made a beeline for the kids’ section. Our mission was to get clothing for a child about whom we knew nothing but a clothing size and a love for Dora and the color purple. I found the right rack, and my seven-year-old elbowed two middle-aged women out of her way, narrowed her eyes and began whisking hangers from right to left on the rack like she was a stylist for Vogue. “I’m sorry,” I said in a low voice to one of the elbowed women. “She’s shopping for another child’s gift.” I observed a feeling of pride welling up in me, as if my kid’s willingness to shove grownups aside to get the perfect dress for a kid she’d never met was somehow heroic.
My daughter’s zeal for the mission infected me, briefly: just long enough, in fact, for me to agree to spend three times the assigned amount on a purple sparkly tutu dress and a soft sweater for the “adopted” child. The satisfaction on my daughter’s face at having the ability to get me to buy these things was indistinguishable from the satisfaction she displays at getting me to buy her the things she wants. I had not anticipated this outcome, and realized that this brought up an aspect of the whole holiday-gift-drive industry that I never recognized before: namely, that children love doing charity work.
What’s more, for children, the concepts of solidarity and charity aren’t at odds: they are intertwined. What I witnessed in my kid was a direct act of solidarity: we girls love new things and pretty dresses, and grownups should buy them for us. If there is a kid whose grownups can’t or won’t buy them for her, then my kid was going to roll up her sleeves and step in to help. What I see now is that with adult guidance, this holiday gift drive, for my kid, can become a gateway experience to better-quality experiences of demonstrating her solidarity. She can participate in our city’s gleaning program, which lets kids gather unharvested produce from local farms to deliver to food pantries. She can participate in Girls On the Run, or another good nonprofit that directly helps improve quality of life for poor kids. In short, I haven’t suddenly decided to embrace the holiday gift drive model:
But what I have done is crouched down to my daughter’s eye level and seen the opportunity to help others through her eyes. I still tell her that growing a few pathetic sprouts of charity in the scorched earth that is the economy for most regular people is never going to be an adequate substitute for the huge interventions that are needed to make life livable for foster kids. But kids like my daughter can’t make huge interventions. As individuals, they can make small interventions. And while small interventions like joining a running or a gleaning program may not alleviate poverty, they can become training grounds for a seven-year-old who may one day be in a better position to make a big intervention.
Photo by Skrewtape, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license