Keenan Walsh remembers the year his parents sat him and his seven siblings down to warn them that Christmas might not be as merry as in years past because his father got injured on the job that October.
But his hometown of Niagara Falls, N.Y., came through and loaded the Walsh home with gifts — so much so, they decided to spread the cheer to other families in need.
“I can remember my parents sitting us down as kids and telling us, ‘This year is going to be hard on us. We won’t have a lot. We’re going to have a nice meal.’ And that year, people in our community came together and gave us so much stuff, my parents were able to take what we were given and help other families that didn’t have anything and who were worse off than what we were,” Walsh said. “And I could remember being 5 or 6 and taking boxes of gifts to some kids’ house that were in our school, and to see that family that was so happy for what we thought was really nothing going to them.
“And on Christmas morning, as we sat around, we talked about the different families that we helped, and our parents were like, ‘Now didn’t you get a whole lot more joy out of seeing those families happy instead of keeping all of that stuff for ourselves? And we still had a ton of stuff in our house.’ My parents were like, ‘If you can help people, always help them. And remember this when you’re older, that these people came and helped us.’”
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Walsh very much remembers the love the town showed his family. So, 19 years ago while he was in college at High Point, N.C., he and a friend began volunteering with Toys for Tots and began storing toys for the Greensboro detachment of the Marine Corps Reserves. That year, the area’s first toy drive for Toys for Tots served about 100 families. When he moved back to Conway after graduation, he got involved with the Marine Corps League out of the Grand Strand detachment who helped with the event.
Walsh said he spent the next 16 years setting up empty donation boxes and collecting them near Christmas for kids in need.
“As the Marines locally got older and were able to do less, they asked me to do more, and about four years ago they asked me to take over coordinator duties,” Walsh said.
The Marine Corps Reserves coordinates the efforts throughout the nation. But, when an area like Horry County does not have a reserve, it finds a local coordinator, like Walsh, to run the Local Community Organization. Walsh said that can be a challenge every year.
“We’ve kind of had to rely more on the community to help support the program,” Walsh said. “Everything we take in is donated, so whatever we give out is taken in by people in the community. Without the Marine Corps Reserve Unit here, we’ve had to depend on civilian volunteers.
“That’s probably the biggest struggle organizing people to take care of all the committments the program has.”
Toys for Tots in Horry County now reaches more than 400 businesses along the Grand Strand.
“This is not something that I looked to do,” Walsh said. “It was just kind of somebody had to do it. It’s really been about building relationships in the community. And in those relationships, we’ve got people who support this program now who look forward to holding events.”
Toys for Tots in Horry County has grown to provide more than 100,000 toys to more than 13,000 children throughout the county; far from the 100 families Walsh and his friend served the first year, but close to the mission instilled in him by his hometown.
“When I sit back at the end of the year and start doing the after-action report and see the number of families that get help, it’s humbling,” Walsh said. “It’s not something I can do on my own. It takes the whole community and it takes the support of the foundation giving me the tools to operate here in the community.”