SHIRLEY -- Once again, Bemis Associates was the sweet spot where a great national notion with staying power like the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots Program, established in 1947, met a local one like the company's annual toy drive, now in its 16h year.
It was a match made in toy heaven.
On a recent Friday morning, three Toys for Tots representatives from nearby Devens -- two Marines stationed there and a TFT coordinator for the Massachusetts State Police -- showed up right on time to pick up hundreds of toys gathered beneath a towering Christmas tree in the company lobby. With dozens more gifts-to-be stacked against the walls, the glittering display spilled down the hallways all the way to the front door.
The toys -- unwrapped and brand new -- were destined to become Christmas presents for children in Essex and Middlesex County communities that might not otherwise have such a happy holiday.
Surely no department store would present a more eye-popping holiday display. With top brand names in the toy world everywhere in evidence, there were cars and trucks, dolls and action figures, stuffed animals and puppets; Elmo and Ernie and other Sesame Street characters; games, rocking horses and ride-on toys, educational toys, kid-size musical instruments, blocks and Legos, Playdough, paint sets and craft kits, (Rainbow looms are very popular this year) baseball bats and mitts, soccer balls, skateboards and other sports equipment, to name a few of the many items in this enticing lineup.
Bemis "Santa" Mike Lynch and a seasonal contingent of volunteer elves the "real" Mr. Claus would be proud to employ -- Mary Roy, Sonia Demelo, Jeff Barns, Angela Apollonio, Tammy Mariani, Tricia Babinski, Marty Bidleman, Sally Wood and Kim VivoAmore -- did the shopping all in one day, with pre-arranged trips to three Leominster stores they visit each year, Michael's, Toys R Us and Dick's Sporting Goods. All three set aside registers for the folks from Bemis and offered special discounts, Apollonio said.
They had plenty of money to spend. The Bemis Toys for Tots campaign collected $30,914.42 from individuals, area businesses and company employees who generously donated to the cause this season. Then they turned the money into toys worth about $10,000 more, with coupons, store discounts and other savvy shopper savings.
"You guys should be really proud" of the job done buying toys this year, said Mass state police TFT coordinator Kerra Huchowski, who went on the shopping trip.
When the Marines arrived at Bemis, the "elves" and other helpers packed up the toys and loaded them into a moving pod and a truck parked outside.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Gaddi, who heads the Toys for Tots program at Devens, said the hub he operates from serves about 88 towns in the two counties, with TFT volunteers picking up toys at designated drop-off sites each week. Program coordinators not only organize the drives, they also work with area charitable organizations that deliver the toys to children in need, Gaddi said.
The Bemis effort is unique, Gaddi said, from the fundraiser to the toy-buying spree, with the most toys ever picked up in one place.
Gunnery Sgt. Gregory Yarbrough agreed this stop was special, like the program it supports.
According to Yarbrough, Toys for Tots was started by Marine Major Bill Hendrickson and his wife 66 years ago after Mrs. Hendrickson noticed families in need living near the base in Los Angeles and made a rag doll to give away for Christmas. Major Hendrickson began collecting donations from his men for more gifts and the program was officially launched the following year, he said.
Sgt. Gaddi presented Bemis CEO Steve Howard with a plaque to say thank you. "Last year, we reached out to 44,000 kids" via the TFT program, he said, and thanks to Bemis's continued participation, "many more will wake up to gifts this Christmas morning."