By Warrant Officer David Brown, Texas State Guard
AUSTIN, Texas – A doll. An electronic keyboard. A monster truck. A surprise under the tree.
It would appear Santa’s helpers are at it again. Rumor has it some of those helpers have been spotted wearing camouflage with Texas flags on their right shoulders.
But it’s no rumor.
For the past 12 years, members of the Texas State Guard have taken to collecting toys to support children during the holidays. The annual “Young Heroes of the Guard” Toy Drive started as an initiative of the 1st Brigade Chaplain Corps but has grown to be a force-wide community service event.
For the past several years, the drive has been coordinated by Master Sgt. John Gately of Round Rock. He has enhanced partnerships with businesses across the state, growing annual donations from about 6,000 toys to more than 100,000.
“I got lassoed in by a sneaky chaplain,” Gately said with a laugh. “He patted me on my right knee – I’ll never forget it – and said, ‘I want you to run the toy drive. If you don’t do it, no one else will. Think of the children.’”
There was no pressure, of course. But Gately quickly took up the challenge. He has kept the effort focused on young Texans in hospitals and from families facing financial challenges, which has been at the heart of the campaign from the outset.
Among other things, Gately manages lists and organizes drop-offs of donated toys to medical facilities, Title I elementary schools, churches, orphanages, and other locations across the state focused on child advocacy.
But he’s not alone in the effort.
“Our mission is to make sure no child goes without a toy, whether it’s a natural disaster or during the holiday season,” said Capt. Sean Payton, a Texas State Guard chaplain who helped coordinate a delivery event in Copperas Cove, in central Texas.
“This is perfect, it gives back to the children, and teaches the children to give to other children in need.”
The two have set their sights high for next year’s drive and set an ambitious goal of distributing 200,000 items. There is growing interest from businesses statewide with a renewed effort to involve Texas-based sponsors.
The toy drive is truly a volunteer effort and is affiliated with the State Guard Association of Texas, a non-profit organization that supports the toy drive and other Texas State Guard initiatives. Those interested in getting involved can visit the toy drive’s website at: www.txsgtoydrive.com.
“We collect toys throughout the year,” Payton said. “It’s a great opportunity for other businesses, doctor’s offices, other schools, and other entities to get involved.”
This year’s sponsors included: Five Below; i7 Media; 1000 Bulbs; The Laird Team real estate; Supplemental Warehouse; Texoma Strength (sports gym); Melly Vent’z (photography); and the Iron Saber Motorcycle Club.
Gately also credits the program’s success to the dedication and commitment of State Guard personnel who volunteer their off-duty time and talents to support Texas children.
They pointed out the efforts of Sgt. First Class James (Damon) Williams of Buda and Warrant Officer 1 Gregory Illich of Houston, members of the 6th and 2nd brigades, respectively.
While everyone involved with the toy drive talks about the immense joy of seeing the smiles on the faces of young Texans, the drive has a special significance for Illich. When he was six years old, Hurricane Camille destroyed his family’s home in Mississippi.
“We lost everything; no clothes, nothing (remained),” Illich said. “My toys were everything for me, they were gone.”
But through the devastation, there was a spark of inspiration.
“The Mississippi State Guard was staffing the shelter,” Illich said. “Before then, I’d only seen soldiers on TV in news reports from Vietnam. When those people in uniforms at the shelter gave toys to me and my brothers and sister…well, it meant more than I can possibly say.”
Years later, as an adult attending a “Wings Over Houston” event, Illich saw Guardsmen on duty wearing the Texas flag patch and said the memories came rushing back.
“That’s when I knew. I knew I could be ‘that Guardsman,’” Illich said, “and be there for those kids. Because I am that kid.”
But for Illich, like all who work with the “Young Heroes of the Guard” Toy Drive, at the end of the day, this is a mission of healing and hope.
“I wish others could have my experience seeing those children,” Illich said. “The folks at Memorial Hermann Children’s Hospital (in Houston) told us when we visit and bring toys, it visibly improves a kid's health. They do better and heal faster. The kids who know we’re coming – that’s all they talk about for weeks!”
But the impact may last a lifetime.
“Who knows?” Illich said. “One of those kids getting a toy may remember that uniform and become a future member of the Texas State Guard!”
The mission of the Texas State Guard is to provide mission-ready forces to assist state and local authorities in times of state emergencies; to conduct homeland security and community service activities under the umbrella of Defense Support to Civil Authorities, and to augment the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard as required.
The Texas Military Department is commanded by the Adjutant General of Texas, the state's senior military official appointed by the governor, and is comprised of the Office of State Administration (formerly the Office of the Executive Director), the Texas Army National Guard (TXARNG), the Texas Air National Guard (TXANG) and the Texas State Guard (TXSG).