The Marine Toys for Tots Program is primarily known as a Christmastime charity, and our local Coordinators across the country work tirelessly to fill every request from families who seek holiday assistance to bring joy to their children. Sadly, needs aren’t seasonal. Families and children in need often fall on difficult times throughout the year—for some, like Foster Care families, it’s a constant factor in their lives.
Children in Foster Care are placed in temporary group homes, residential care facilities, emergency shelters, and supervised independent living homes. Children often leave each place with only a small plastic bag of their belongings. Toys for Tots wants to be the year-round force for good for children living in Foster Care, but we needed help with this newly established year-round initiative. That was when we reached out to Wendy Chadwell—who wears more than one hat when it comes to helping children in need.
Wendy is the Houston County, GA, Toys for Tots Coordinator during October-December, but she serves as the Child Protective Services (CPS) Administrator for the Houston County Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) year-round. She has worked for the DFCS for 21 years and has primarily been on the front end when the investigations are conducted, and she supervises and manages the investigators who are going out into the field. She was also an investigator at one point in her career and handled Foster Care cases. She commented, “child welfare [and foster children are] very important to me [as well as] making sure that they are safe and stable, whether that be reuniting [them] with their parents or [providing them with] [an alternate] safe and stable environment.”
Serving as the Administrator for CPS, Wendy faces a plethora of responsibilities each day. When asked how she manages to take on the added responsibilities of being the Toys for Tots Coordinator, Wendy said it’s all about having a good team.
“My work team and my Toys for Tots volunteers collaborate tremendously, together. Through that collaboration, we are able to successfully complete a campaign and also assist the foster children in the Middle Georgia area. It takes a village.”
In 2022, Toys for Tots’ support expanded beyond the holidays, providing hope and emotional comfort when and where it was needed most allowing the Program to benefit even more disadvantaged children. Our Foster Care initiative in Warner Robins, Georgia, was Toys for Tots’ first step in supporting children in Foster Care. When asked about Toys for Tots’ newly established initiative, Wendy said, “when Valerie [the Foundation’s Operations Account] contacted me, I was excited because this is obviously near and dear to my heart [having served] 21 years in the field—you just have some compassion and emotional response to that.”
Over 400 backpacks were stuffed to the brim with toys, books, and school supplies. “It became somewhat overwhelming, but again, I have a great group of volunteers.”
Wendy went on to say that the entire process went smoothly thanks, in large part, to the county’s Youth Ambassador, Kaylee Jones, who has been involved with the campaign for several years. “[Kaylee] did an amazing job rounding up more help and [encouraging others] to volunteer that needed the volunteer hours.”
The local law enforcement also supported the event with enthusiasm. “I called [the local law enforcement] and said we want you involved because we want the lights and sirens [and as] much attention brought to this [as possible], and they did it. They came out, they were super supportive, and the [entire event] just worked really well. [And] the feedback that we have received has been very positive. The counties have been very appreciative, and the foster parents have been even more appreciative, as well as the kids,” she continued.
The success of the Toys for Tots’ year-round initiatives is attributed to the partnership with local organizations and the selfless participation of the Coordinators beyond campaign season. When asked how Wendy felt to be part of the first Foster Care distribution event supported by Toys for Tots she said, “[I was honored] to take on this type of responsibility and tackle this endeavor—but, again, it is near and dear to my heart.”
She continued, “I was halftime school social worker and halftime DFCS. They had a grant program that would pay for my master’s [degree] if I gave them the time back. I completed the program and got my Master’s in Social Work and paid my time back. [Then] I moved on to investigations, then to supervision, and now to administration. It was obviously my calling—otherwise I wouldn’t still be here. [When I started this journey] I had no idea that [this] is where God wanted me to be.”
Much like Toys for Tots’ goal is to provide hope and emotional comfort to children in need year-round, Wendy’s efforts are bringing the same comfort to Foster Care children. “Our goal is to empower a parent to be a better parent, to provide those safety parameters for their own children, [and] to have the abilities and the coping skills to maintain a lifestyle where their child thrives and does well in school and moving forward,” she commented.
This event, and those that the Foundation is planning in the future with the support of other organizations, highlight how the Program positively impacts children throughout the year – not just at Christmastime.
Wendy said, “with more year-round efforts brings more limelight and attention to Toys for Tots, and any positive attention grows the Program. Any assistance that can help us in reaching more people [and] getting more donations in turn helps more kids. Through Programs, like the [Foster Care] backpack initiative, we are able to do that.”
Through Toys for Tots’ year-round initiatives and with support from people like Wendy, we can positively impact more children in need. “The goal here is to get the word out,” said Wendy.
Needs aren’t seasonal, and neither is Toys for Tots.