HELENA — It takes an army to make Helena’s Marines Toys for Tots possible.Leadership staff works all year long with the big push beginning in November. While the mission and passion of volunteers have stayed the same, the organization looks a lot different than it did when it first started in the 1970s.
Maines Toys for Tots has been around since 1947, but the program didn’t come to the Helena area until 1979. It started thanks to a conversation over a cup of coffee between Marine veteran Jim Heffernan and the local Marine recruiter.
In the early years, individual locations had to run the program basically on their own and it was only a handful of volunteers.
The first year Heffernan personally drove from Helena to the Seeley-Swan area and then to Missoula asking about families that might be in need. He then came back to Helena and began soliciting donations. By the Christmas season, they had ended up raising and delivering around 300 toys for the kids that year.
“Back then of course it was very small,” said Don Paul who has, for decades, been volunteering for Toys for Toys with with his wife. “My wife and I would actually help prepare a Christmas dinner for families… The whole family would come in with the kids and after dinner was over Santa would come in and each kid got to go and sit on Santa’s lap, but normally the kid got just one present.”
Original Helena Coordinator Jim Heffernan passed in March. Still, he got to see Helena Toys from Tots grow with hundreds of volunteers now helping the cause.
“Jim was a curmudgeon, I mean he absolutely was. We teased each other unmercifully all the time,” Helena Toys for Tots Co-coordinator Howard Mears jokingly told MTN in March. “We had fun, we had a huge amount of respect for each other. His attitude about Toys for Tots was absolutely remarkable. He believed in you folks out there and he believed in the kids in this community.”
This year has been a transitional time for Helena Toys for Tots, with Mears -who was named national Toys for Tots Coordinator of the year in 2020 - stepping down after a decade at the helm.
Toys for Tots has been a constant endeavor for Mears, with him helping families year-round and raising funds in the summer through mowing.
“Howard is the most giving person,” said volunteer Lorena Stevens. “He is a tough Marine, but he’s a real big teddy bear. He wants to bring joy to every single child and family member at all times.“
Angie Fillinger, who served as Co-Coordinator this year, said, “He one of the most kind and generous people. Always looking for ways to help out and serve the community, serve others. And he has been a huge part in me wanting to be involved in Toys for Tots.”
Even though Mears is stepping down, he’ll still be working with the organization heading the Native American Program which provides toys to families on reservations. He told MTN he believes the program is in great hands with Fillinger and is excited to see the next generation taking up the mantle.
“The longer she has been working on Toys for Tots, she has just opened up and bloomed. She loves what we do, she loves our programs, she loves our community,” noted Mears.
Speak with any volunteer and they’ll have the same message, that volunteering for Toys for Tots is one of the most rewarding things they’ve done. Just ask Kodi Wilmot, who has been volunteering since before she was born, with her mother volunteering while pregnant.
“I don’t think I could ever not be a part of Toys for Tots,” Wilmot said. “It is the most amazing experience and helping families is… it just brings a different type of joy into your life.”
Mears has played an important role in Wilmot’s life, with Wilmot asking him to be her adoptive grandfather a few years ago. Mears has gained two adopted granddaughters from Toys for Tots.
“He is a very good grandpa. I love him very much and I wouldn’t be as far as I am in Toys for Tots without him,” said Wilmot.
Mears served as a Marine Sergeant in Vietnam for three years, attached with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. During that time he was also combat fight crew. He participated in the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive.
Mears explained that serving in the military, especially in combat, can take a toll on a person’s heart. Toys for Tots, and other community services, can help heal some of those invisible wounds.
The old Marine never sought to get anything back from giving his time to Toys for Tots, but by Mears own accounts, Toys for Tots has given him more joy than he could have imagined.
“What can you say, it’s a great program. It has done my heart good. It has made my life wonderful,” said Mears.