When stationed overseas, it’s really up to you how to incorporate the holidays. For us, that involves little more than a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree (read: twig with string lights) and roasting up a big turkey to share. For Marine Security Guards stationed around the world, one tradition is absolute: Toys for Tots.
Traditionally overseen by Marine reservists in the States, the MSGs assume the role of toy collectors and distributors at each Embassy. This year, we were very pleasantly surprised to fill the donation box outside Post One not once or twice, but nearly four times. Toys in Tegucigalpa aren’t cheap. That simple stuffed dino changing hands in the picture below? That cost me about $25 in a local store… and it was 40% off at the time.
USAID Honduras arranged for J and his Marines to distribute the toys at two AID-funded community centers perched on the hills around Teguc. Centers like these give kids a safe space to study and play outside of school and it’s an understatement to say that they need it. These neighborhoods are in the heart of gang territory, where even the Marines require armed escorts and security to ensure safe entry and exit.
Visiting these neighborhoods presents a different perspective of life in Tegucigalpa, a new insight into the world from which we shelter ourselves. When J questioned why one of the centers would not allow parents inside, the staff informed him that they wanted kids to choose a toy that they really wanted. That logic wasn’t entirely obvious until he noticed a few mothers fighting for window space. They were coaching their children on which toy to choose, one can only assume so that they could resell it for the best price. J watched as one little girl came back to exchange her doll at the behest of her hovering mother.
You simply cannot vilify these women, though. When a small toy can fetch you $40+ and the average Honduran makes only about $2000/year, perhaps less in such neighborhoods, the math is undeniable. Donors always question whether or not donated toys go to the “truly needy.” In other corners of the globe, it might be worth asking if the “truly needy” need toys at all.
It’s a classic shortcoming of charity, where achieving the immediate objective is considered a success. Meaningful, long-term impact is hard to measure, but one can’t help but consider potential alternatives: raising funds for a holiday party; donating toys directly to youth centers where they can be shared amongst community youngsters; building playground equipment at a community center; donating shoes, school supplies, or other “necessities” in lieu of toys. It’s easy to make these suggestions as an observer, but I’d argue it’s worth innovating when investing in children. Or perhaps I should learn to leave well enough alone…
Toys for Tots is a time-honored tradition among Marine Security Guards. I know it does our young Marines a world of good to get out into the “real” Tegucigalpa and interact with these children. Hopefully the reverse it true, too, even if some of them may unfortunately go home toyless. Days like this are a timely reminder of why the U.S. has such a large diplomatic and development presence here, in what is practically our own backyard. I’d like to think that if the mission is truly to “deliver a message of hope to less fortunate youngsters,” perhaps Toys for Tots is not falling entirely short of its goal in Tegucigalpa.
Side note: The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation in the US runs a well-respected, transparent operation that has historically scored well amongst watchdogs like Charity Navigator. Don’t let this experience scare you away from donating to your local drive during the holidays!