Caught between a recession and record need, the Toys for Tots program in King County has changed the way it will distribute toys this season to ensure that at least the neediest children will have something under the tree.

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Caught between a recession and record need, the Toys for Tots program in King County has changed the way it will distribute toys this season to ensure that at least the neediest children will have something under the tree.

But the change has left many of the churches and community organizations that used to pass out toys scrambling for alternatives.

“There are a lot of people who will be left out this year,” said Pastor Delvin Brown of Victory in Praise Church, located in a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Burien.

This year, only families that qualify for some sort of state assistance will be eligible to receive toys. The toys will be passed out next week at the 10 Community Services Offices across the county operated by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

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“I wish I had the ability to give a toy to every child in King County, but our goal is to focus on children who might not get anything,” said Marine Gunnery Sgt. James Ivey, program coordinator.

In years past, churches and community groups requested toys from the Marines, then distributed them at holiday parties and through community-service programs.

But toy donations have dropped from the 200,000 the Marines used to collect in an average year. And some of the toys handed out by community groups wound up for sale in thrift shops and swap meets, Ivey said.

This year, Ivey says, he will be lucky to get the 106,000 toys necessary for all King County families who receive DSHS assistance. So far, he’s collected about 21,000 toys and $10,000 in cash donations.

Many families that don’t qualify for DSHS programs are nonetheless in need, especially with unemployment so high, said Brown. “This is the year we need it the most.”

For 12 years his congregation received between 300 and 500 toys from Toys for Tots. They were distributed to needy children at a Christmas party and through the church’s outreach programs.

Brown said he was never aware of anyone who abused the program. But he has encountered individuals that bounce from church to agency to organization, gathering all the holiday freebies they can.

“You have those people,” he said, “but then you have the people who are really struggling, and that’s who we’re trying to help.”

Brown hopes to come up with enough money and donations to at least have stocking stuffers for children at his church’s Christmas party.

Yesler Community Center in Seattle has revamped its party to focus on games, cookie decorating and crafts. “We won’t be giving out any toys,” said center coordinator Shari Watts. “It was a surprise and a disappointment.”

South Park Community Center is partnering with other groups to mount its own toy drive, said coordinator Ian Hallock. “We’ve just been telling families that, yes, there will be some amount of toys available, but donations are down.”

King County’s Toys for Tots program is coordinated by the U.S. Marine Corps’ 4th Landing Support Batallion based at Fort Lewis. The unit is made up of about 20 active-duty Marines, who provide training and support for a larger, reserve unit. Nearly all of them have served at least one tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The group is stretched thin during the months devoted to Toys for Tots.

“We’re working 20-hour days some days,” said Ivey, who has also been fielding complaints from unhappy organizations. The new distribution system takes some of the pressure off the Marines to sort and pack shipments for so many churches and nonprofits, he said.

At the DSHS Community Services Offices, state employees will verify eligibility and Marines will hand out the toys.

DSHS Deputy Regional Administrator Gary Hartline said anyone who receives cash payments, medical assistance, food assistance or child-care subsidies from the agency will qualify.

But it’s not clear how many of DSHS’ clients are aware of the way the toy handouts will work this year. Ivey said he also realizes it may be difficult for people to make it to one of the centers on the designated distribution days.

“We’re trying to make our program as proficient as we can,” he said. “The thing I worry about most is whether the toys will come in.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or

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