For 2018, more that 1,600 children in the greater Helena area will receive around 11,900 toys, books, and games through the Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots program.
On Saturday, the bulk of the toys were distributed at the Helena Salvation Army Gymnasium thanks to hundreds of volunteers.
James (Jim) Heffernan, who helped start Helena Toys for Tots 40 years ago, assisted with overseeing the operation Sunday.
A Marine in the Korean War and former East Helena Police Chief, Heffernan and his wife moved to Montana in 1978 to raise their family.
Heffernan said he spoke with the Marine recruitment office in Helena one day when the idea to start a local Toys for Tots came about.
“Over a cup of coffee we were talking about how we can repay the citizens of our country,” said Heffernan. “We said ‘What about Toys for Tots?’ Mind you at that time it was not set up like it was today. Each separate location had to take care of their own.”
The first year Heffernan personally drove from Helena to the Seeley-Swan area to Missoula asking about families that might be in need. He then came back to Helena and began soliciting donations and ended up raising and delivering around 200 toys for the kids that year.
“That was the birth of Toys for Tots in Helena and thank God were were able to carry it on,” said Heffernan.
Heffernan served as the coordinator of the Helena area Toys for Tots for 30 years before stepping down. Each year he kept the same guiding principle: Make life a little easier for families in need.
“See that recruiter back in ’78 was a combat vet as well as yours truly. We saw what families, what happens to families, in combat zones and you feel for them being in that awful situation. I think that was a crucial point in us starting Toys for Tots here,” mused Heffernan.
He said he never could have imagined the program would have grown so large and credits the dreams of the coordinators who came after him, Beth Foster and Howard Mears, for shaping the program into what it is today.
Still actively involved in the program, Heffernan helps out with toy drives and hands out Toys for Tots challenge coins to those he sees go above and beyond in their service.
“Jim is stubborn, talks in exclamation points, and we couldn’t get by without him,” said current Helena Coordinator Howard Mears. “He’s our heart and soul.”
Humbly, Heffernan believes the real thanks should go to the community for their support over the years and the volunteers, especially the kids that give up their weekends to help.
“They’re learning something that they’ll carry on for the rest of their lives,” said Heffernan. “And I personally want to thank the citizens of Helena, East Helena, Lewis and Clark County for what they’ve done in helping us out to accomplish our mission.”
Heffernan added that his time with Toys for Tots has meant to world to him.
“When I see a mother crying because she’s humbled or when a child sees someone in need and helps, those moments are very important to me,” reflected Heffernan.
While volunteering with Toys for Tots, Heffernan has helped raise and coordinate tens of thousands of toys in Helena and for the Indian reservations across Montana.
Volunteers said although Heffernan doesn’t have a beard as white as snow or a round belly that jiggles, he has more than earned the title of “Helena’s Santa Claus.”
-Reported by John Riley/MTN News