Marine Corps vet and wife are longtime coordinators of Mankato Toys for Tots

By Amanda Dyslin

The United States Marine Corps is a big part of Bernie and Sue Thompson’s family.

Bernie served from 1983-1987, and now two of their children are Marines, one having served from 2009-2013 and the other from 2012-2017.

“You never stop being a Marine,” Bernie said.

Toys for Tots

Photo by Pat Christman

And it was also through Bernie’s involvement in the Marine Corps League veterans’ organization that he and Sue became coordinators of Mankato’s U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots chapter in 2004.

There hadn’t been a chapter in the area since the early 1990s, and the league wanted to get a local chapter going again. Despite not having any previous personal or professional affiliation with Toys for Tots, the Thompsons were happy to sign on, and the charity dedicated to getting toys to needy children at Christmas has been an enormous part of their holiday season ever since.

“As the years have gone by, I’ve understood that it’s a good thing for the community, and it’s a great thing for the kids,” Bernie said. “When I was younger, if I hadn’t got any toys, how would I feel?”

Most families sign up for the program through social services, and they come to the distribution site at the Mankato Armory for pickup a week or so before Christmas.

Mankato Magazine: What is the scope of the need in the three counties you serve? How many toys are collected and distributed in our area every year?

Sue Thompson: About 12,000 toys. We’ve already got 300 or 400 families signed up (as of Nov. 1). We serve about 3,500 children.

MM: Of all the charity work that happens during the holiday season, what makes Toys for Tots special and important in our community?

ST: For one, it’s for the kids. That is the huge, biggest seller of our program. And we have a great ratio of our spending: 97 percent nationally goes toward toys (3 percent is administrative).

Bernie Thompson: It stays local, and it’s just for kids. And also it’s unique in the way that it’s the only official program run by the military that interfaces directly with the public. It’s an official program of the United State Marine Corps.

MM: Do you personally get to see the positive effects the charity has on families?

ST: Oh yes, we have. I have to tell you this story about one of the first years we did it. The families come in, and Bernie was going to be at the end of the line to say goodbye to everyone. And a mom came in and got her bag (of toys), and she just started crying and said, “Thank you so much,” and, of course, Bernie started tearing up. And then he said, “OK, I can’t be at the end of the line anymore.”

BT: We have had people who are really grateful. I gave a boy a bike about five years ago, in 2013. We had a bad snowstorm, and a child came in with his mother, and he was kind of sitting there all by himself, so I went and was talking to him.

I said, “Do you have a bicycle?” And he said no, so I said, “Do you want a bicycle?” He wasn’t sure about it, so I went in the back, and I took one of the bicycles out, and it was snowing so hard you couldn’t even see across the street. But he took that bicycle and rode it right out the door. He was so happy to have that bicycle. … Even now, thinking about it, I get kind of choked up.

MM: Was there a toy that you remember receiving as a child that meant a great deal to you?

BT: It was a yellow, 25-pound bow and arrow. Santa Claus brought it. It was actually a neighbor who pulled up on a sleigh with horses, and he gave us all these things. I was young, 10 maybe. … My parents also used to take toys and put them in the chimney. My mom never liked to wrap stuff, so that made it easy. We would look inside, and there were all these toys in there.

MM: What is Christmas like for your family now?

ST: We don’t have Christmas here because we run this program (laughs).

BT: We get up on Christmas morning; most of our kids are around here, so we have Christmas morning here. We do (Toys for Tots) distribution a week before, and that gives us the week before Christmas to do our shopping. We’re not big on Christmas decorations, though.

ST: We just don’t have time. Our youngest daughter was 18 months old when we started this program. That’s all she knows is us doing this program. Our hope is that we are really good role models (for our kids).

MM: What are some of your interests or hobbies beyond the Christmas season?

BT: We like to travel. I was stationed in Hawaii, so we have been there quite a few times.

ST: Also, San Diego and the coast of California. And the mountains. We like Colorado.

MM: What would the community be surprised to learn about you?

BT: We met in the hospital. She was my nurse. I was in a really bad farm accident. I spent a little time in the hospital, and I must have had a really good health plan because they sent me home with a nurse.

Robb Murray is the Features Editor for The Free Press. He can be reached at 344-6386 or rmurray@mankatofreepress.com. Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb

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