The mission of the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program is to provide joy and send messages of hope to children in need through the gift of a new toy, book, or game. Each year, the Program strives to reach more less fortunate children, and the success of the mission is made possible by the generosity of the American public. No matter how an individual, company, family, or organization donates, every supporter has their story or reason for why they wish to support our Program—like Mr. Irwin Chu. For 20 years, Irwin Chu has been bringing joy and hope to impoverished children through his “Miles of Smiles Bike Drive”—all while honoring his late son.
On September 3, 2002, Mr. Chu tragically lost his sixteen-year-old son, David, in a car accident.
That Christmas would be very different for the Chu family, and after the tragic loss of David, they decided not to exchange Christmas gifts that year. However, one family tradition continued in memory of David.
“As a family tradition, each of us always gave a bike and helmet to the ExxonMobil toy drive in Maryland. We decided to use the holiday money [that we would have used for our family gift exchange] and give more bikes and helmets,” said Mr. Chu.
His friends noticed Mr. Chu purchasing several bikes and helmets at local stores and were curious—so Mr. Chu told his friends that to honor his late son, he and his family were using their Christmas gift exchange money to purchase more bikes and helmets to donate to the ExxonMobil toy drive. After hearing that their friend was supporting local children in need, they gave him extra money to purchase even more. With the support of a few friends, Mr. Chu and his family were able to give fifty bikes and helmets to the ExxonMobil toy drive that year.
Over the next few years, word spread that Mr. Chu was collecting donations, and contributions came pouring in. Overtime, as donations grew larger, the storage space for bikes and helmets grew smaller at ExxonMobil. “Eventually, the Human Resources department said they couldn’t handle the hundreds of bikes and helmets we were contributing each year,” Mr. Chu commented. That’s when he reached out to his local Toys for Tots campaign.
“I’ve always given to Toys for Tots and asked if they could handle hundreds of bicycles and helmets. The Staff Sergeant’s answer was ‘we are Marines!’”
To reduce costs, Mr. Chu bought the bikes from Huffy, unassembled, and helmets from Helmets R Us. The stores were generous to give Mr. Chu wholesale prices because they knew the bikes were going to be donated to Marine Toys for Tots. ExxonMobil even provided space to assemble and store the bikes prior to distribution.
Soon, Mr. Chu was donating over a thousand bikes a year! With the influx of donations, the storage space became even more limited. “Once again, I called the Marine Corps and spoke to a Gunnery Sergeant and asked if he could help assemble the bikes. His answer was: ‘Mr. Chu, I have a whistle! When I blow my whistle, this is what I hear, Sir, yes Sir! No Questions asked!’”
Many volunteers have come together to assemble the bikes at the Marine Corps base over the years – Former President, George W. Bush and Former First Lady, Michele Obama even joined the effort.
“[The length of] a thousand bikes lined up end to end is about a mile of bikes. I decided to call this the “Miles of Smiles Bike Drive” hoping that we would end up with a few miles of smiles,” said Mr. Chu. Including what Mr. Chu is donating this year, over the course of 20 years, 20.5 miles (20,500 bikes) of smiles were donated to children in need—which totals over $2 million!
Mr. Chu remarks to those who have assisted in this drive over the years, “It’s been my honor to have facilitated this [drive] and to have known each of you [who have helped with the drive]. David would have been amazed to have seen this.”
Mr. Chu and his family have provided hope and joy to thousands of children in need over the past 20 years, and he created something beautiful to honor his late son, David. Because of Mr. Chu’s support, children in need in his community have received messages of hope and Christmas miracles when they might otherwise have gone without.