by Anna Ferraro
They’ve been at it for 36 years, a group of local Marines on a mission to play Santa Claus each holiday season. It goes along with their motto – “semper fidelis,” meaning, always faithful – to their country, their families, and now that they’re in reserves or retirement – to their communities.
In 1980, Tim Ritzo and half-a-dozen of other local Marines decided to make a “Toys for Tots” group in Jacksonville. Now a national program with over 800 units, the Jacksonville group was ahead of the game, organizing themselves and their resources before there was much of an organizational headquarters to back them up. Over the decades, dozens of local Marines have participated in the program, even including Marines that saw combat on Iwo Jima. Today, they’re still on a mission – give less-fortunate children in Jacksonville a better Christmas.
How does it work? Beginning in October, they place dozens of collection boxes at businesses and other locations all around Jacksonville. Leading up to the holidays, community members fill the boxes with toys. Then, the volunteers in Toys for Tots collect the boxes, take them to a location where the thousands of toys are sorted into age and gender categories, and set them up for a BIG Christmas party.
Ritzo says, “The list and toys get bigger every year. The community’s been amazing.” Back in 1980, they had their first Christmas party at a local Chevy dealership – 50 kids, a couple guys dressed like Santa Claus, and a single truckload of toys. As the years went on, they grew significantly, hosting dozens of Christmas parties at the American Legion. In December 2015, Toys for Tots in Jacksonville hosted their Christmas party at First Christian Church with over 1,200 children. Each child enjoyed refreshments, and received two toys. In addition, around 200 children in the middle age-range received bags of stocking stuffers.
As always, collecting, sorting, and organizing the thousands of donated toys each year is a huge endeavor. While Ritzo has been the leader of the Jacksonville unit for 35 years, he says, “There’s no way I could do it all myself. It takes all of us to do this.” A few of his key volunteers have included Jerry Lowe, John Waltrip, Dick Matthews, and many others that have passed away or moved on to different places. Ritzo says, “It’s a good group of people to work with. I love the spirit of camaraderie.”
The name of their unit is the “West Central Illinois Leathernecks, Marine Corps League No. 1177,” to be exact. Ritzo commented, “And that’s not an arbitrary number. No. 1177 is the number of sailors that were killed on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. To us Marines, that’s a very special number.”
Ritzo added, “In addition to us Marines, we have people throughout the town that have come out every year, including folks from Prairieland Heritage Museum, groups from the colleges, churches, and more… The support is phenomenal. If I tried to name all the people that have helped, I would be typing for ever.”
Ritzo shares, “All the funds and toys we collect stay here in the area. We try to cover Morgan, Scott, and Cass counties.”
This year, they will be using the Senior Center at Community Park for their distribution center. And instead of directly distributing to children, they’re inviting parents to come and take home toys and wrapping paper to get stuff under the trees for their kids.
Now that they’ve been at it for 36 years, Ritzo stated, “We have several children who were recipients many years ago, who have children of their own that are now receiving gifts, or we’ve seen people who received gifts as children who are now volunteering as adults.”
Reflecting on a memory from a past year, Ritzo reminisced, “When we were out at the American Legion for our party one year, a kid was looking at the toys in his bag. He said, ‘I’ve already got one of these, what do I do with this?’ One of the Marines looking on said, ‘Why don’t you give it to someone who doesn’t have one?’” Turns out the little guy liked the idea – and so the giving continued.
And those are the memories that, as Ritzo said, “are hard to put into words.” Because those memories encompass big ideals: Christmas. Faithfulness. Always. And as high-minded as those ideals sound, the Marines in our community have got it figured out. In the same way that they gave to their country in years gone by, so now they give to their community. And they keep at it year after year. Each time they see a child holding a gift in their hands and a smile in their eyes, Ritzo and his comrades at Toys for Tots knows that they’ve embodied part of their Marine Corps motto: “semper fidelis” – always faithful.