“If a child is experiencing darkness all year long and then someone like me, dressed in a fancy uniform says, ‘I think maybe we can help you a little bit’, that can give maybe not all of them, but one or two the hope they need, and they’ll go on to do great things.”
This was Staff Sergeant James Caldwell’s answer to continuing his passion for assisting children in need in his local community. SSgt Caldwell is a United States Marine, and his seventeen-year connection with the Marine Toys for Tots Program directly relates to his childhood and experience with the Foster Care system. “[My little sister and I] were the recipient[s] of Toys for Tots because our parents adopted [us]. I was put into my [foster] family at six months old, and [my parents] fought for both of us for four years.”
SSgt Caldwell went on to say, “I think at like four and a half, almost five years old, I was finally officially adopted. I wish every child in the Foster Care system had the same opportunity as I did.” He further stated that the average annual number of children that are living in foster care is about 500,000, and around 120,000 to 200,000 thousand foster children are in the system long term.
“It’s not fun – it’s very traumatizing no matter what family you’re put with. There’s plenty of good foster families out there. It’s the fact that you know that you’re not with who you’re supposed to be with because of bad reasons – that can be very damaging to a kid.”
Every child deserves hope for a brighter future, and SSgt Caldwell knows that importance as well. “I’ve made it a point in my life to be involved as much as possible with not only foster kids but also children of families who are less fortunate.”
SSgt Caldwell is an active Marine Reservist – and each Christmas season he is heavily involved with the Toys for Tots Program. “Toys for Tots has been an integral part of my entire career because I am an active Reservist. If you’re at an Inspector and Instructor duty station, you’re going to be [supporting] Toys for Tots.”
His time as a Reservist has allowed him to assist many children in need, and he recalls one time, in particular, that drove him to continue to devote so much time and effort into the Program.
“[About eight years ago], I was a Sergeant, I believe, and I was in my dress blues – so I was a door greeter that year on distribution day. [We had a foster group coming that day], and I handed this little girl a bag of toys. As she looked at me, she [reached] into her bag and [handed me this stuffed animal] and said, ‘Someone needs to make sure you get a toy, too.’”
SSgt Caldwell was struck by this young girl’s words. “I had to leave for like five minutes after that because I couldn’t stop crying. This little girl – who literally had nothing, who was in a home that was not her original home and was away from her family, with strange people – [had a] big smile on her face and pulled out one of her toys and gave it to me and said, ‘Someone needs to make sure you get a toy, too!’” That right there sealed the deal for me and why I have always been a huge advocate for Toys for Tots and done everything that I could to make the Program better and to help [wherever I’m stationed].”
That moment the little girl gave him one of her toys was a moment that SSgt Caldwell will always remember, and he reinforces the difference he is making for children growing up in similar situations as he did.
“Everybody goes through life looking for something that will fulfill them. I was given a wonderful opportunity as a kid. So, for me to be able to stop, look at where I’m at, turn around and look back and remember where I came from (or where I could have been) if it weren’t for my family, then look at the other kids that are looking at the same bleak future and say, ‘No, there’s something better, let me help you.’”
SSgt Caldwell delivers more than just a new toy to disadvantaged children in his community – he also reminds children that brighter days are ahead, and Toys for Tots stands ready to assist whenever they need hope and joy the most.
“It really makes me proud. I’m proud of what I’ve done with Toys for Tots. I think it’s a pretty impressive opportunity, and I know that there [are] one or two kids out there that I’ve reached, that will one day go on to do great things in their own communities. And for that, I’m extremely grateful. I’m grateful for the opportunity that Toys for Tots has given me.”
SSgt Caldwell was positively impacted by the support his local Toys for Tots chapter gave him as a young child. He is able to give back to the Program that gave him hope and create a ripple effect that will hopefully encourage other children to have hope and believe in a brighter future – because every disadvantaged child needs a toy, too.