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VALPARAISO — As a single mom of five children, Lois Smith finds it difficult to make ends meet, especially at Christmas.

Unfortunately, 2017 brought Smith her share of disappointments and setbacks.

“Right now I’m going through a divorce,” Smith said. “Because of that, my vehicle got repossessed and I had to find a new one. “

Although Smith works a full-time job, she and her family still struggle.

“I have so many bills,” Smith said. “This has been the roughest year so far. Nothing seemed to go right this year.”

Thanks to the Marine Corps League’s Toys for Tots program, which held its distribution day Saturday at the Porter County Expo Center, Smith and her children will have a merry Christmas and plenty of toys under the tree.

Jim Atkinson, a member of the Marine Corps League’s Dunes Leathernecks and the Porter County Toys for Tots program coordinator, said nearly 900 families in Porter, Jasper, and Starke counties benefitted from the group’s toy collection this year.

Starting in November, Leatherneck members distribute Toys for Tots collection boxes at area businesses, where donors drop their new, unwrapped toys. About $8,000 in donations is also collected, which the group uses to purchase toys for older children, who often get overlooked, said Atkinson.

Families, who are pre-registered, submitted their children’s genders and ages, and Saturday volunteers filled bags full with toys, puzzles, and books, while kids’ bikes were raffled. Nearly 3,000 children will receive toys for Christmas, thanks to the program.

“The tables (of toys) were filled 30 inches high, and there were boxes underneath and all over the floor area,” Atkinson said. “We can’t even count the number of toys donated.”

More than 125 volunteers, including the Valparaiso High School cheerleaders, Portage High School Junior ROTC members, area Marine Corps recruiters, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, members of the Marine Corp League Dunes Leathernecks, and the Indiana National Guard from Lafayette, Indiana, helped pick toys for families and carry the goods to their cars.

“We’re happy the weather is nice so people don’t have to stand outside in the cold,” Atkinson said. 

Volunteer Karla Eder helped fill bags of toys for the waiting families.

“When you see those parents out there ... it’s very rewarding,” said Eder, of Hammond. “The looks on their faces are great.”

The program helps Smith and other parents worry a little less at Christmastime because their kids can still “believe.”

“Two of them still believe in Santa,” Smith said. “So I try to keep that going for them.”

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