SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Marines are looking for a few good teddy bears.
Marine Lt. Col. George Kirby says when it comes to choosing toys for the nation's underprivileged children, he would pick teddy bears or dolls as the perfect, loveable presents.
A tough active duty Marine, Kirby even keeps up with the latest fashions for Barbie dolls in his role as a regional coordinator of the annual Toys for Tots campaign, which this year kicks off its 40th season of soliciting Christmas gifts for needy youngsters.
"You really become a 'toyologist' in this organization," said Kirby. "Here I am, a Marine lieutenant colonel, and I'm an expert on what the well-dressed Barbie wears."
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Dave Bertelsen said the project takes a lot of hard work and logistics but adds, "It's a lot of fun."
"What's surprising is the increasing need," said Bertelsen, an 18-year Marine veteran. "It gets greater every year."
Kirby and Bertelsen were among a contingent of Marines taking part in a recent kickoff luncheon to the annual toy drive that included the Marine reserve officer who founded the program in 1947 with the making of a single rag doll. Also present were officials of the Bank of America, which has designated its 886 branches nationwide as collection sites.
Last year, some 7 million toys were distributed to more than 3 million children in all 50 states and Canada in the program for underprivileged children administered by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
All toys donated at the collection sites, which also include many churches, stores and restaurants, must be new or unblemished and be unwrapped. Marine reservists collect the toys Dec. 21 and sort them out before they're distributed to civic and charitable organizations to be wrapped and given to needy youngsters by Christmas.
"Any gift we get we figure equals one child's smile on Christmas morning," said Kirby, whose unit helped collect and distribute 32,000 toys to youngsters in San Francisco and Oakland last year, often with the help of local police and fire departments. "We may not have the reward of seeing that smile, but somebody does and that's what counts."
Kirby said the Marines are not judgmental about what kind of toys are donated, but added, "We can never get enough teddy bears."
"When an organization making a donation lets us pick what we want, it's usually dolls and teddy bears. We wouldn't select guns or tanks or anything like that.
"The thing about a teddy bear is that it seems to return your love. You can look into its eyes and it looks back. Teddys can become a part of a family and stay with it for generations."
Program founder William L. Hendricks said the idea started in Los Angeles 40 years ago when he was a major in the Marine Corps Reserve. His wife, Diane, made a yellow-haired rag doll and expressed the wish that it could be given to a family who couldn't afford presents for their children.
Hendricks said he approached his commanding officer, who gave approval, adding sternly, "Don't fail."
"We didn't fail," said Hendricks, now a retired colonel. "The program filled a need. When we got approval, we called all five newspapers in the area before he changed his mind."