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With military-like precision — perhaps owing to the involvement of the U.S. Marine Corps — an army of Toys for Tots volunteers is distributing more than 11,000 Christmas toys to 2,166 children in 898 families this week out of a toy store set up next door to the Montana Rescue Mission.

“All this is wonderful. It helps us out a lot,” said Nakia White, of Billings, who was shopping for free toys for his three children Tuesday morning with his wife, Michelle. “The kids see presents under the tree, and it makes them happy.”

Both Whites work outside the home, but one parent must frequently stay home to care for one of their children who has serious health problems. A fair amount of their take-home pay goes for medical bills, Michelle said.

“If we have a couple dollars left over at the end of the month, we’ll give it to St. Vincent de Paul,” Nakia said.

Together with dozens of volunteers and a number of businesses and agencies, St. Vincent de Paul partners with local Marines, Family Service Inc. and Laurel-based Community Hope to make the event smooth and meaningful for the hundreds of families who will shop the toy store this week.

Families are identified by agencies and then given a date and time to complete their shopping. It’s a tight schedule, said Vicki Massie, St. Vincent de Paul’s volunteer coordinator and information technology manager, with about 32 families shopping the store each hour.

Organizers need to keep up that pace in order to serve each of the 898 families in need by week’s end.

The store — the goal is to make it look like a real toy store, and volunteers have done just that — has about 11,000 donated toys, worth, if they had to be purchased, about $165,000, said Marine Staff Sgt. Patrick Gross, Toys for Tots coordinator.

Gross said Marines try to hold several Toys for Tots fundraisers throughout the year.

“It’s rewarding to see the look on parents’ faces, and the kids get excited, too,” he said.

Gross said Montana Rescue Mission did Toys for Tots a big favor by allowing use of its building this year and next. That will allow Marines and other fundraisers to store toys there year-round.

“If you do a little bit throughout the year, it helps out a lot this time of year,” he said.

Here’s how families are served at the Montana Avenue store location: Shoppers, each with a shopping appointment, check in and are then taken around the store by a volunteer, who knows where toys are that might be a good fit for the gender and ages of the shopper’s children.

The volunteer’s job is not to shop for the parent or grandparent — rather, it’s to show the shoppers around so that they can reach their own decisions about which toys to take home, wrap and place under the tree.

“We love watching parents collecting toys for their children,” said Jeryl Macauley, a volunteer with St. Vincent de Paul who’s coordinated the Toys for Tots store for the past three years.

Donations — cash, toys and clothes alike — made in Yellowstone County are given only to Yellowstone County children, she said, and only Yellowstone County youth can receive gifts through the local program.

While Macauley and Massie have been instrumental in ensuring that the operation runs efficiently — even designing the layout of the store — they’ve had a lot of help. More than 150 Wells Fargo employees have been freed from their banking duties to help shoppers.

Members of the MSU Billings men’s basketball team used their height to full advantage — they hung store shelves.

A women’s group at St. Bernard Catholic Church created 345 candy stockings using recycled Halloween candy.

Billings restaurants provide a daily boost by feeding lunch to the volunteers every day.

The 898 families being served this year is a record, a 22 percent increase over last year’s 701 families.

“People are constantly thanking us and wishing us a Merry Christmas,” said Walt Acra, assistant executive director of Family Service Inc., who was working the front desk Tuesday. “One family I know just came in. They work very hard but they still couldn’t afford Christmas for their three kids. They said we made their Christmas.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.