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Marine veterans rally to collect Toys for Tots.

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Marine veterans rally to collect Toys for Tots

13 Jan 2022 | By Dan Irwin Marine Corps Recruiting Command

NEW CASTLE – The former Marines have landed.

When the man who had led the local Toys for Tots campaign for several years fell ill during the holiday season, his fellow members of Marine Corps League Chapter 788 banded together and ran the campaign instead.

The result, according to league member Rick Burkett: More than 1,100 children received multiple toys on Christmas morning.

The annual holiday outreach has been spearheaded for some time by Frank Plonka. When he became too sick to step up again in 2021, Burkett said, it initially seemed that there would be no Toys for Tots last year.

“Frank has gone well beyond the basic distribution-and-pick-up of the ubiquitous boxes during the Christmas seasons,” Burkett said. “He is known by name by many of the proprietors.

“When we got together, there was talk that, ‘Well, Frank’s not doing real well, I guess we won’t be able to do Toys for Tots this year.’ I told them, ‘If you let this go by one year, you’ll never get it back. We’ll never regain that enthusiasm that we have for it right now.’ So we picked it up off the floor, and together we divvied it up.”

Burkett admits that the effort might not have been quite as finely tuned as it has been under Plonka.

“But that’s because Frank did a lot of things on his own that he didn’t tell anybody about,” Burkett said. “We would find that out, somebody would call and ask, ‘How come Frank didn’t…’ then fill in the blank, and we’d say, ‘OK, well take care of that,’ and we’d make it happen.”

The collected toys, Burkett said, were taken to the New Castle Salvation Army and City Rescue Mission for distribution. Local Salvation Army Capt. Elliott Higgins said no one would have known that the league was using substitutes to run the campaign.

“They did a fabulous job,” Higgins said. “I don’t think they missed a beat. It went smooth, and we were able to serve everyone who needed it. We did that combined with our Angel Tree program, and between them, we gave out over 7,000 toys.

“All that combined together gave us more than enough. Without the community’s help, there’d be no possible way we could do it. Hopefully, they don’t ever stop. There’s that much of a need, really.”

Technically, Toys for Tots is a program overseen by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. However, because there is no local reserve unit, Burkett said, the Marine Corps League – a small group of retired Marines belonging to an organization chartered by an act of Congress in 1937 – assumes the task.

Still, the group also could use some reinforcements.

“Our guys that are there now are Vietnam-era vets; we still have one Korean War vet,” Burkett said. “Once in a while, we’ll get a younger guy. They can’t field a color guard right now to march down from the courthouse to the city on a parade day. They just physically can’t do that.

“So we are trying to recruit. There are other things that we could be doing, but we just don’t have the manpower.”

As evidenced, though, by the success of its Toys for Tots drive, the league is still making a difference.

“There were a lot of toys,” Burkett said, “to the point that anything that came in after a certain drop-dead date they’ve stored for next year.”

Some may not even sit around that long.

“Even the stuff we have leftover, we still use throughout the year,” Higgins said. “There were just a couple of folks who lost all their belongings in a fire, and the kids actually had just gotten toys from us. We were able to replace them with some of the extras that we had.

“And it’s a start for next year,” he went on. “We have our distribution, and people come in after the distribution with more toys. That’s how much the community gives. We don’t have an opportunity to give them all away, but it’s good to have a start for next year where we can already cross some things off our list.”