It was the first week for collecting toys and Kristen Fry didn’t know what to expect when she walked into Dollar Tree. It was a rough year, 2020. People might not be able to give as much. She introduced herself to the manager.
“I hope you have a truck,” he said.
“Really?” she said, not sure if he was joking.
“Yeah, really,” the manager replied, before heading to a storage area to get the donations.
He came back with a monster-sized dolly, Fry recalled, with boxes upon boxes stacked high. And there was her answer. People were giving more. “A lot more,” this year, she said.
The toys numbered between 18,000 and 20,000 by the time volunteers finished the four-week collection, Fry estimated. They were to be distributed to children of Soldiers who make up Tampa Recruiting Battalion in Florida. Affectionately known as Gator Battalion, it is part of U.S. Army Recruiting Command’s 2nd Recruiting Brigade.
Fry is the wife of Gator commander, Lt. Col. Terry Fry, and senior advisor to the battalion’s Soldier and Family Readiness Group. Fry became involved in the toy drive after assignment to Florida in mid-2019. She collected toys last year before the pandemic hit. The numbers donated this year, with COVID still dominating the headlines, far exceeded expectations.
“We were very pleasantly surprised,” Fry said. “People were completely generous considering everything going on.”
The nonprofit Operation Homefront has partnered with Dollar Tree for more than a decade to collect toys for military children. The Gators’ SFRG volunteers pick the donations up at Dollar Tree stores in their communities so toys can be distributed from the battalion’s five companies down to the Soldiers assigned to recruiting stations.
Irene Lias leads the SFRG for Gators’ Sarasota Company. She too was part of last year’s toy drive and was surprised by the “really great turnout this year” that yielded, according to her estimate, almost 4,000 toys for the company.
The donations are especially helpful to recruiting families, Lias said, because they are usually separated from the benefits of main Army locations like Fort Bragg, N.C., the post where Lias was previously an SFRG leader. Lias is also the wife of Capt. Garnett Lias, Sarasota Company commander.
“(The toys are) a way for us to reconnect to the families,” Lias said. “In USAREC, we are so far from the stations.”
Staff Sgt. Fotu Toluao is commander of the Gators’ Fort Meyers station. The generosity of his Florida community has benefited his own children, and he’s seen how much it has helped his recruiters. The nonstop pace of recruiting can make shopping very stressful. This is especially true, Toluao noted, for those separated from their children and need time to ship everything.
“We’re working 24/7,” he said. “This is a great program to help the recruiter fill that hole.”
Operation Homefront’s annual toy drive is designed to ease financial burdens that often accompany the holiday season for service members in the E1 to E6 paygrades, according to a Homefront news release. The partnership with Dollar Tree began in 2006.