For the past 14 holiday seasons, John Harkness, a U.S. Marine veteran from Medina, Ohio, has shown up at his local Walmart in his dress blues and dutifully accepted donations for underprivileged children.
He does it for the Toys for Tots program and, as far as Marine missions go, this one may be the 69-year-old’s all-time favorite.
“It means a tremendous amount,” Harkness, who has 11 grandchildren of his own, told The Washington Post. “The object of the mission is to put a smile on the face of kids who otherwise would not have a Christmas.”
But this year, that mission was imperiled when Harkness and his wife, Lynn — who coordinates the Medina Toys for Tots program — were told that they were not allowed to accept donations inside their local Walmart, according to ABC affiliate WEWS-TV. Instead, employees told the surprised couple, they would have to stand outside the store.
That wouldn’t have been so bad, the couple told The Post, if the temperature that day wasn’t freezing and rainy. The couple asked whether they could stand in between two sets of doors at the entrance, but were denied all access to the store.
“Their presentation wasn’t the best,” Lynn Harkness told The Post. “It was not the manager, but they weren’t overly friendly or sympathetic. They just told us to ‘get out.’ ”
For the next six hours, the pair remained outside in the “bitter cold,” she added, accepting donations, standing on car mats to ease the pressure on their feet and trying to engage with freezing customers as they hurried inside the store.
“It was wet and cold, but we stood there,” Harkness told The Post. “Once a Marine always a Marine — you’re going to accomplish your mission, I was more concerned about my wife and I felt bad for her because people were bringing me coffee and sandwiches.”
The location put a damper on donations as well, Harkness added. Positioned inside, Harkness is able to engage customers in conversation after they’ve finished shopping. On a good day, the pair can collect as much as $1,000. Standing outside in bad weather, customers are in a rush to get inside and donations drop significantly, he said.
At some point during their six-hour “standathon,” an upset customer asked Harkness whether she could snap his photo, according to WEWS-TV. Without the couple’s knowledge, the photo was shared on Facebook with a photo of the store manager, her name and phone number, and the following caption:
“He can bleed and die but not stand inside!!! Marines have been allowed to stand inside to collect for Toys for Tots since this store opened. No longer!!”
The quickly racked up thousands of shares on Facebook from outraged users, generating violent comments and death threats for the store manager, according to WEWS-TV.
— Homa Bash (@HomaBash) November 30, 2015
The Harknesses told The Post they appreciate people’s concern, but they’d prefer to redirect attention to the underprivileged children they serve. They said they are particularly troubled by aggressive reactions the photo has provoked on social media.
“What really surprises me and upsets me is the death threats the manager is getting,” Lynn Harkness said. “We’ve got enough violence going on in the country with people being shot. The harassment has got to stop.”
A statement released by Walmart said the company regrets how the couple was treated, but corporate policy doesn’t allow “this type of solicitation” inside their stores:
If a Marine or anyone was treated with disrespect, that is unacceptable and we are looking into this matter further to get the facts. Walmart’s corporate policy across our more than 4500 stores does not allow this type of solicitation inside our stores and we apologize for any confusion about this policy. Most importantly, we are proud to support wonderful organizations like Toys for Tots, Girls and Boys Scouts, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross who are stationed outside our stores during the Holidays and other times. Finally, Walmart’s support of our men and women in uniform both during active service and when they return home is a privilege that we strive to honor each day through our commitment to hiring hundreds of thousands of Veterans as well as the many charitable Veteran organizations we are proud to support.
The couple said the local Walmart manager has since apologized to them, but she’s unable to change the corporate policy.
They would like to continue the Toys for Tots program at Walmart, but the company’s strict policy poses a health risk for aging veterans, particularly in bad weather. Many of the program’s volunteers are senior citizens, Lynn Harkness said, and are too fragile to stand outside in the cold. This year, she noted, the program is over.
“Two of our guys — both Vietnam veterans — have had cancer and surgery in the last year and they can’t be outside in freezing weather. It could cause them to catch pneumonia or something.”
“Besides,” her husband added, “we’re not asking for much or really anything, just a little space to save Christmas for the kids who need it most.”