As the holiday season was approaching in 2017, siblings Taylor and Christopher Bracey weren’t just thinking about presents for themselves. They were looking for ways to give back. A friend suggested Toys for Tots, a program run by the Marine Corps Reserve.

Founded in 1947, Toys for Tots has been collecting toys and donating them to several generations of less-fortunate children.

“Our dad was in the military and our grandfather on our mom’s side was doing Toys for Tots for years … so we chose to do that,” said Taylor, who is now 17. Taylor and Christopher, 14, have been involved ever since, holding festive events to collect toys each year.

The events are no small undertakings. In 2020, they collected 6,000 toys to donate to their community in Forney, Texas. Nationally Toys for Tots donated 20 million toys last year to 7.4 million kids — their biggest year yet despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Ted Silvester, a retired Marine and vice president of marketing and development for Toys for Tots, wasn’t surprised by the record-breaking year.

During “74 years, this country has been through crises over those decades, and each year, the American public never lets Toys for Tots fail,” Silvester said.

There are 830 local Toys for Tots campaigns across the United States. Marine bases hold donation drives to support the program, but there aren’t enough Marines to cover all the communities in need, so volunteers help out.

Most of the campaigns are run by local community organizers who volunteer to help collect, sort and distribute toys. “Really anybody that wants to bring Toys for Tots to the area that doesn’t currently have one in their community can reach out to us, and we can get it set up,” Silvester said.

Dawn Stem did just that. She is a community organizer in Prince George’s County, Maryland. “All we care about is that we do everything we can for a child that’s in need,” she says when explaining why she participates each year.

For Stem, it’s not just helping kids but seeing kids help one another that makes the program “a blessing.”

“The Cub Scouts and the Brownies, they do events for us and collect toys and bring it to us,” she said, “which is great because it’s kids giving back to kids, and I love that.”

For years, Toys for Tots officials heard inspiring stories of kids volunteering for the program, Silvester said. They decided to name some of those kids youth ambassadors. In 2020, Taylor and Christopher were the first two appointed.

But the Braceys weren’t collecting toys for the recognition. “I didn’t even know it was going to happen,” Christopher said. Nonetheless, “it was an honor,” he said.

The big honor, though, is being able to help kids who have less than they have, Taylor said. “They’re probably never going to meet me or know who I am, but it makes me feel good to know that I was helping them.”

Get involved

What: The annual Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots campaign.

When: Through December 12.

Where: Many local organizations are toy collection sites. To find those in your area or volunteer opportunities, visit toysfortots.org.

Special events: Several toy drop-off donation drives (co-sponsored by WJLA) are scheduled for the D.C. area:

December 3, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Ikea, 2901 Potomac Mills Circle, Woodbridge, Virginia.

December 4, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial/Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

December 10, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Ikea, 10100 Baltimore Avenue, College Park, Maryland.