On a sunny day outside Sarasota City Hall, volunteers place a box of colorful toys in the trunk of a white SUV.
There’s a purple and turquoise Spalding basketball, a mermaid playset, and a plethora of other toys to give to Sarasota-area kids for Christmas.
Naval veteran and chief information officer Willie Holland has led the town’s Toys for Tots campaign for 18 years. During the holiday season, city staff and local residents donated toys to City Hall and the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex.
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Holland doesn’t meet with the families who receive the gifts, but he hopes the gifts will make an impact.
“As long as I can put a smile on a child’s face, that’s all that matters to me,” he said.
His service in the Marines
Toys for Tots, which was founded in 1947, is operated by the US Marine Corps Reserve.
Holland served in the Marines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was stationed at Camp David – the President’s country residence in Maryland – where he was part of the security service.
“It’s a rewarding role,” he said, “because not many people have that opportunity to do it straight out of training camp.”
President George HW Bush celebrated Christmas at Camp David during Holland’s tenure. He remembers playing wallyball – a sport akin to volleyball but played on a racquetball court – with the Bush family.
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The Marines have won a few games. The Bushes have won. But Holland noted that his team didn’t just let the president’s family win.
“What he loved about playing with the Marines was that we didn’t allow him to win because he was the president,” said Holland. “We were very competitive with the president, as were his family. “
After his tenure in the Marines, Holland worked in telecommunications while studying computer science in night school. In 2000, he was hired by Sarasota to work for the IT department, and has been employed by the city ever since.
Continue to serve through volunteerism
Holland decided to start running the Toys for Tots program in the city of Sarasota because he had served in the Marines.
“As a veteran of the Marines, I thought it was the closest thing I could do to honor the Marines and continue the tradition of the Marines when it comes to toys for toddlers,” he said. he declares.
Making sure people participate is one of the challenges of organizing the toy drive, Holland said.
“You have to try to find creative ways to get that employee involvement because… it’s just a volunteer type thing,” he said.
One solution was to encourage city staff to donate toys at employee appreciation lunches. The city has raffles at these meals, and employees must bring an unwrapped toy to participate in the raffle.
Donated toys are then taken to facilities where they are sorted by age group, but Holland is not involved in this process.
The longtime city employee loves how Toys for Tots benefits less fortunate children.
“Christmas is a happy time,” he said. “You want to keep making people smile, even though they can have all kinds of different hardships than – we just don’t know what they’re going through. “