It is the mission of the United States Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program to provide hope and joy to families and children in need. The support provided often has a lifelong impact on those we support — and the positive memories can have a rippling effect on their future choices in life. Such was the case for Major Mariela Pena, a United States Marine assigned to 1st MLG, I MEF and former recipient of Toys for Tots.
Maj Pena and her family are originally from Nicaragua and came to the United States during the Revolution in 1987 when she was nine years old. Families were determined to leave the country, and women were allowed to emigrate to the United States. However, the men in the family were needed to be on the front lines to fight – even her oldest brother, who was only twelve years old.
“My family flew from Nicaragua to Mexico and then to San Diego,” said Maj Pena. “Once we were all reunited and together, we began our trek to San Jose.”
Maj Pena and her family were driving along Highway 5 on Thanksgiving evening– her parents said, “Christmas isn’t going to happen for us this year, but we’re just going to celebrate the fact that we’re all together.” All the money that her family had saved was used to immigrate to the United States.
Maj Pena and her family were living with her aunt in San Jose, thankful to have everyone together for Christmas. Little did they know, a Christmas gift was on its way. One morning, a few days before Christmas, Maj Pena and her family walked outside to a Christmas miracle. Marines in uniform stepped out of the five-ton truck, filled with toys. To see the faces of her family members light up—they couldn’t believe that Christmas had come to their door. She commented, “we got the biggest Christmas I think we had ever experienced in our entire lives.”
Maj Pena and her siblings picked out their toys from the five-ton truck – “I got a yellow bunny stuffed animal that I also used as a pillow,” said Maj Pena.
Sometimes, it’s not just the physical gift of the toy that resonates with a child—receiving the stuffed animal meant much more than just a Christmas gift to Maj Pena in that moment. “I remember coming outside of the house and seeing the five-ton truck full of toys, and I [knew] that I was going to drive trucks in the Marine Corps, forever.” She continued, “the Marines are the biggest fighting force in the world, and yet, they still take the time to take care of people and the most vulnerable, and I said, I want to be a Marine.”
Maj Pena has been serving our country for 26 years—she joined the Marine Corps Reserve at 19 years old, and was stationed in Hayward, California. During her first 12 years in the Reserves, she volunteered with her local Toys for Tots Campaign. In 2005, she was deployed to Iraq and would be missing Christmas with her 10-year-old son. Hearing that news, the local Marine Corps League contacted the Toys for Tots Campaign in Concord, California, and said “[there was] a Marine’s little boy that needed a good Christmas.” So, on the morning of Christmas Eve, the local campaign delivered a brand-new bike to Maj Pena’s son.
When asked how much a donation means to a child and their family, Maj Pena said, “The donation is bigger than the value of the actual toy that [Toys for Tots supporters] donate. Because, when [Toys for Tots supporters] are donating a toy, they aren’t just donating an item, they are giving a sense of security to a child when they need it most.” She continued, “A feeling of welcoming, a feeling of security – that things are going to be okay. That’s the impact of the donation, and that’s what Toys for Tots meant to me.”
When our loyal donors support Toys for Tots, they aren’t just simply donating a toy or making a monetary gift. They are providing desperately needed joy to families and children, like Maj Pena and her family, and sending a message of hope for a brighter future. The individual who donated the yellow bunny not only gave Maj Pena a gift at Christmas, but also gave her hope and inspiration to become a United States Marine. What may seem like a simple donation can give a lifetime of hope and a security to a child or family in need.