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Marines gear up for their annual Christmas mission of providing toys to needy families

Nathaniel Matos, 7, of Allentown. (Andrew Scott/ The Morning Call/TNS)

The Matos family is no stranger to tough times.

Around Thanksgiving last year, their entire household tested positive for COVID.

Raphael Matos, a forklift operator at the iHerb warehouse in Palmer Township, was home without pay for more than a month, waiting for everyone in his family to be cleared before he could return to work.

He’s the sole breadwinner after his wife, Tanya Matos, left her medical assistant job three years ago to care for their children, Raphael, 13, Ualani, 10, and Nathaniel, 7, who has developmental delay and respiratory issues.

Raphael Matos recently returned to work after being out for six months due to an injury. Again, he had no income because of delays in the unemployment compensation application process.

“So, yeah, it’s been a struggle for us,” said Tanya Matos, who wants her children to still experience joy at Christmas.

Families like the Matoses are why the Marines founded the Toys For Tots program, which partners with The Salvation Army in giving community-donated Christmas gifts to children in financially struggling families.

But the organization needs toys to give.

“Our toy inventory is even lower than expected at this time last year, so we really need the community to come out and show support at our drive-thru so we can help give these kids a nice Christmas,” said Kathryn Pammer, civilian volunteer coordinator at the Toys for Tots warehouse in Allen Township.

The second annual Toys For Tots drive-thru, where the community can drop off gifts, is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 5 at three locations: 1080 Schadt Ave., Whitehall Township; 2416 Emrick Blvd., Bethlehem Township; and 124 E. Fairmount St., Coopersburg.

“Santa and the Marines will be at all three locations, accepting donations,” Pammer said. “It’s a great way for people to get to know more about the program and what we do.”

The donations go to The Salvation Army, which screens families who apply to determine their eligibility for the agency’s Christmas assistance program, said Deirdre Govan, resource development manager at the Salvation Army’s Allentown location.

Toys For Tots is part of the assistance available for families like the Matoses, who last year benefited from Tthe Salvation Army’s program that involves donors placing gifts under “angel trees” at Walmart stores.

“[Donors] definitely give some kids a happy Christmas,” said Ualani Matos, who last year got a bean bag while older brother Raphael got a Nerf gun and younger brother Nathaniel got a Ryan’s World robot.

Lehigh Valley native Marty Hacker, 75, of Catasauqua, who in the 1960s served in the Marines at base camps Lejeune in North Carolina and Pendleton in California, loves helping give that happiness.

“On Christmas morning, somewhere in the Lehigh Valley, a child, who otherwise may have gotten nothing, is opening a present from a stranger who wanted that child to enjoy the holiday,” said Hacker, a Toys For Tots volunteer since 1973. “That person is imagining the smile on the face and in the heart of this child they don’t know and likely may never meet. There’s no greater satisfaction.”

Hacker learned about Toys For Tots — founded in the 1940s by Marines who saw World War II′s devastating impact on children in Europe — when he visited the Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles on his honeymoon.

“Turns out the restaurant owner’s late husband was one of the Marines who started Toys For Tots,” said Hacker, who helped open the program’s 6,000-square-foot Allen Township warehouse last year. “It’s grown quite a bit. Here in the Lehigh Valley, we’ve gone from distributing 500 toys a year to over 100,000 a year. We operate with the help of community volunteers, including kids from local schools, who help organize and sort toys by age group and gender at our warehouse.”

Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Olson, Toys For Tots’ Lehigh Valley coordinator, said this helps the public see the Marines as more than just a military force.

“We haven’t always been viewed in a positive light,” Olson said. “This shows we care about our communities across this great nation we serve and that we want to give back to these communities.”

Tanya Matos encouraged more residents to donate to Toys For Tots.

“There’s no item too big or too small,” Matos said. “You never know the difference you can make. Families like mine are forever grateful.”

Residents can learn more about the program, how to donate and/or how to volunteer to help organize and sort donations at the warehouse by contacting Olson at 484-222-3938 or at

Families can apply for the Christmas assistance program by contacting the Salvation Army at (610) 432-0128 or visiting the agency at 344 N 7th St, Allentown.


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