Local Veterans always helping children

Written by Mike Siroky. Posted in Community News


Published on April 13, 2011 with No Comments

by Mike Siroky


New blooms signal the annual regeneration of our area. Folks are thinking of gardens to be planted, the summery weather just now weeks away.

And Toys For Tots.

Of course, it’s always the season for Toys for Tots. Oh, sure, the national program pops up on our television screens round about Thanksgiving. And we all remind ourselves that this year, we will help some child enjoy Christmas by donating a new toy.

And we all are aware the Marines are the driving force in this worthy endeavor. But it just doesn’t all come together at Christmas.

In the Valparaiso area, the Dunes Leatherneck Detachment 1056 works the project all year. As you might expect, it is much more than the main event. All the servicemen involved stress all they do is “for the children” first, last and always.

Yet there is the undeniable spirit of camaraderie, the coming together of those who served, the special bond that exists when you earn the title of Marine. Jim Atkinson of Valparaiso is intimately involved in the Toys for Tots campaign and all the ancillary projects that spring forth, including Marines Helping Marines.

Right now, for instance, the group is reaching out to all the latest veterans as they return from deployments.

The Marine family continues to grow. They want the newest members to remember they are honored and welcomed. Atkinson is the accredited Veterans Service Officer for the area, which means he facilitates the answers for any need of any veteran.

As Past Commandant of Indiana Mike Leeper said, “We are veterans helping veterans.”

Atkinson said, “Everybody in our wing is either a former Marine or associate members. And we do pretty much help families here and there, not only in the Christmas season, October through the middle of January.”

This past season, Toys for Tots affected 1,720 children, the best effort to date, surpassing 2009 and 1,444 children helped.

“We do have active servicemen as well and that helps a great deal,” Atkinson said. “But, overall, you get out of something what you put into it.”

As the economy has hit a rough patch these past few years, the Dunes Leatherneck Detachment has received more rather than less. It seems working families realize they may still be able to show a kindness to their hometowns and do so through Toys for Tots.

“We are astounded and so happy the general public is so generous in the way they provide money and gifts,” Atkinson said.

“Children who do not have any other way to have Christmas are helped. Folks rise to the occasion and help out, more so in the past two or three years when the economy was bad. The need is so much greater but so are the donations.”

He said it comes down to the wire every holiday season.

“You can be very, very concerned,” Atkins said. “But the last two or three weeks people just give out of their hearts. They always have met the need.”

Dune Leatherneck Detachment is an official organization, charted through the Marines, to assure every donor is legitimate.

Atkins said this year marks the first decade of being involved locally and, “We’ll continue to do it as long as we can. Once someone doesn’t need our services, we just ask they donate for someone else. They all do.”

The outreach to newly returning soldiers is indeed a nice side benefit of staying in the public’s eye.

As the Veterans Service Officer, he wants to help any returning vet, if only to let them know there are plenty of servicemen ready to just sit and listen and offer all the help they need to get back where they want to be.

“We don’t do this for publicity, we do it for the children and anyone who needs help,” Atkinson said.

Joe Baczynski is another member of the Dunes Leatherneck Detachment.

“Yes, we’ve been the official Toys for Tots agent in Porter County for 10 years,” Baczynski said.

“When I was growing up, I had Christmas. Mom and dad weren’t the richest, but they made sure we had Christmas under the tree.

“So, I thought, everybody gets that. With so many single parents … the kids didn’t ask to be in this situation. What I think of is every child, all year ’round, deserves Christmas.”

Baczynski said the group has gotten creative in collecting funds. As an example, many of the corporate-sponsored gold outings in Porter County make bringing a new toy part of the tournament fee.

“And we collect ’em,” Baczynski said.

And, like Atkins, he said they quietly work whenever there is a need, not just at the holidays.

“We try to stay aware,” Baczynski said. “If someone gets their house burned out in a fire, we’ll ask what can we do to help. Clothes, toys, whatever we can do.”

Like all the Marines involved in the Leatherneck groups, Baczynski sees a simple credo: “I do it for the kids,” he said.

Parents, guardians, schools, all connect with the group and they assess the situation.

“The little ones, that’s who we think about,” he said. “We don’t do it for recognition, but if talking about it helps donations, we’ll talk.

“What I tell people is, ‘We’re always here.’ Now, it may not always be me – when I am gone, someone else will take my place – but don’t hesitate to use us.When you don’t need us, then think of me the next time you see a box and you put a toy in it.

“That’s the biggest thank-you we could ask for, knowing someone else’s little boy or girl will have Christmas.”

Baczynski points out the national Marine Corps League consists of former active duty and active duty Marines and also Fleet Marine Force medics, with the associate members. He said the Vietnam Veterans of America are almost all dual members of the league.

“We don’t lack for help every year when it is time for toy distributions,” he said.

That flows from the Valparaiso Armory, the Saturday preceding Christmas.

As an example of inspiration Baczynski has taken from the children of the community, he cites the “young lady” from a local Boys & Girls Club who won an art contest. With the win came a monetary prize.

“In turn, she told her mom and dad she wanted to buy toys with that money, not for herself, but to be donated to Toys For Tots.

“Then there’s the little guy who, at his sixth birthday, asked for unwrapped gifts for Toys for Tots. He was back again this year – now he’s eight.”

“That’s showing the community what we do.”

Baczynski summed up his devotion to this project.

“We like to work hard. Most of us have worked hard all of our life. But we want to work harder. So, if we get more we can work harder.”

For more information on the work of the Porter County Veterans Office, Dunes Leatherneck Detachment 1056 or the Marine Corps League, call 219-465-3587, or visit www.marinesofindiana.com.

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About Mike Siroky

All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the above excellent column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Chronicle. Mike Siroky is a writer and editor. He is a native of Northwest Indiana. He has worked in media from coast to coast. To contact Mike, email mikel@the chronicleNWI.com

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