Last year, through the Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots toy drive, officials from the Oseola McCarty Youth Development Center on McSwain Street in Hattiesburg were able to put together Christmas bags – including toys and clothing – for 2,400 children and families in the area.
The center is hoping for another good event this year, when Toys for Tots will allow individuals or businesses to drop off toys at more than 30 sites throughout Hattiesburg, Petal, Laurel and Columbia to ensure that every family gets to celebrate Christmas.
“I’ve been here going on 18 years when we started this nonprofit, and I’ve seen, really, our second generation of children,” said Janet Baldwin, program coordinator for Forrest and Lamar counties. “Some of the kids that were young when we first started, they’re grown now, and I have some of their kids coming here. I’ve seen the need – when I look at the kids and how they were, I feel like we had a big part in how they’ve progressed in their adult life.
“Some of them come back and say, ‘I remember when we went and camped out at Little Black Creek,’ and I know it made an impression and a difference with them. A good many of them did go to college … and when they come back, they’ll come over here and help. That’s what keeps me going; I can see the difference that we make not just in the children, but in these families.”
Center officials began accepting applications in October from families that wish to receive a Christmas package. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, applicants were able to register for the program online.
A full list of sites that are serving as drop-off points can be found on the Oseola McCarty Youth Development Center Facebook page, where participants can also donate financially. Participants will be able to make toy drops until Dec. 18.
Some toys are currently being sorted at the center, and the toys that are dropped off at participating sites will be picked up on Dec. 21 to bring to the center for additional sorting.
“We’ve already got our area somewhat organized; we have it grouped into boys or girls of different ages,” Baldwin said. “We’ve got stocking stuffer bins, so they’re going to get at least three big toys and stocking stuffers, and a clothing item, in their bags.
“There’s a room here that’s designated, and we’re going to do it by the family numbers. We’re going to do that on Dec. 21, starting at 8 o’clock that morning.”
Volunteers will call families a couple of days before that to let them know what their family number is. Families will then be able to come to the center to pick up their packages.
“They’ll stay in their vehicles, and we want to make sure they bring their ID, and we will bring it to their vehicles for them,” Baldwin said.
The Oseola McCarty Youth Development Center is now in its 17th year of hosting some type of Christmas program for families.
For the first two years of its existence, the center held Christmas SLEEVE, which stands for Sharing Love with Everyone, Everywhere, and Volunteers Giving Everything.
Fifteen years ago, the center partnered with the Marine Corps Reserve, and began hosting Toys for Tots five years ago.
“Before, I was going all the way to Jackson to get help with toys,” Baldwin said. “So, they asked me if I would be a coordinator, and I agreed to do that because it would make it easier for us to have access to more toys. We’ve served a lot of children.”
Throughout the years, the center has partnered with several area businesses, including PetSmart, which donates thousands of stuffed animals to the cause.
“Last year, each child in area kindergarten schools and Head Start got a stuffed animal,” Baldwin said. “We went over to the classrooms and we distributed that to them.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a challenge this year because they’re not in school (because of COVID-19), so what we’re planning to do is branch out. We’re going to some of the convalescent homes, because some of our volunteers have family there. So, we’re going to find a way to send (them items); we’re going to do convalescent homes and daycare centers that are still going.”
Other big sponsors include Petro Nissan, Toyota of Hattiesburg and Hattiesburg Cars, which compete against each other each year to see which business can raise the most for the center and Toys for Tots.
“Our big toys come from those businesses,” Baldwin said.