A Fayette County resident who once was responsible for ensuring U.S. presidents safely reached their destinations is now responsible for ensuring toys reach the hands of children in need at Christmas.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Jeff White exudes the same passion for service as the local coordinator of Toys for Tots as he did during a long and distinguished military career that included piloting Marine One for Presidents Clinton and Bush. Like most Marines, his desire to serve didn’t end with his military career. “I know I’ve been blessed,” White said. “I feel invited and obligated to help wherever I can.” But he’s quick to add he doesn’t handle the job alone. “I’ve got a lot of great people who volunteer and help us out.”
White, who served in numerous countries and operations including Desert Shield and Desert Storm, said being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week as one of the Marine One pilots, was tough on family life. But he said, “The Presidents were always very good, pleasant, and kind to us.” Although piloting the most powerful man in the world seems like a nerve-wracking task, White said, “My job was to get that helicopter wherever it was supposed to be safely. That's what we did.”
One of his favorite memories is of George W. Bush. Shortly before White left the unit, he’d had a “grip and grin” photograph made with President Bush. Bush asked him all the usual questions about his plans as well as about his family. White shared with the president that his father was hospitalized with heart issues. About a week later, White remembers the president coming aboard and asking, “How’s your dad doing?” “I was blown away,” White said. “All the president has on his mind and all the stuff they have to keep up with and he remembered the dad of the guy driving his helicopter was in the hospital.” White also said the president’s mother, Barbara Bush, was known for her kindness, often gifting cookies when people visited Camp David.
White’s military career also included service as the domestic plans officer for Homeland Security. After being stationed at Fort McPherson in Georgia, his family settled in Peachtree City in 2001. He flew for AirTran Airways and Southwest Airlines after his military retirement. “I've had an amazingly blessed and fun, exciting career,” he said. “But I never got into Toys for Tots until I got out of the military.”
Toys for Tots was started in Los Angeles in 1947 after the wife of Marine Corps Reserve Major Bill Hendricks made some dolls. She told him to donate the dolls to an organization that helped needy children. When he couldn’t find such an organization, she told him to start one. For many years, the Marine Reserve Program ran Toys for Tots. Through his membership in Marine Corps League Detachment 1325, White learned that the Marine Reserve Program had a serious need for new manpower to run Toys for Tots. With so many Marines deployed to war, there weren’t enough people to run the program. Marine Leagues took up the slack and now run the majority of more than 800 Toys for Tots programs in the United States.
Hank Berkowitz, Mike Foran, and White started the Fayette County Toys for Tots program in 2010, which has grown to include Coweta, Meriweather, Talbot, and Heard counties. That first Christmas they served 1,700 children. In 2022, more than 6,300 children were served with the help of 200 volunteers across the five counties. “This program has been very, very successful,” White said. “To serve 6,000 kids, it takes between 20,000 and 23,000 toys. We will typically collect in the neighborhood of 14 to 15 thousand toys, and raise on average about $35,000 a year, sometimes more, sometimes less.” A large donation last year allowed the purchase of 250 bicycles. “That was a big hit,” White said.
Donations to Toys for Tots should be new, unwrapped toys for birth through 15 years. Since most of the donated toys placed in about 200 collection boxes tend to be for younger children, White said donated funds help purchase items that pre-teens and teens would like, such as earbuds, wi-fi speakers, makeup kits, and purses. All local donations to Toys for Tots are distributed locally from distribution centers in Peachtree City and Newnan. White’s wife, Karla runs the Peachtree City distribution center. Manned completely by volunteers, White said 98 cents out of every dollar donated to Toys for Tots goes directly to buying gifts for children. Each child chosen receives three gifts from Toys for Tots and each county handles applications differently. Generally, names are gathered through other charitable organizations, churches, school systems, and fire departments.
White shared that hearing stories such as one from Talbot County about some children who cried for two days because they couldn’t believe they received bicycles makes the effort worthwhile. “Their families were beside themselves because they couldn’t afford these gifts,” he said. Knowing that Toys for Tots reaches more than 20 million children across the United States stokes his enthusiasm. “Our reach is huge,” he said. White is thankful and appreciative of all who contribute and volunteer locally. “There are so many people that help us get it done,” he said. “It's just whatever we can do to make it better for the community.” But White added there is always a need for more help. “I need people,” he said. “I need people to help. I need people to donate.”
To learn more about Toys for Tots, volunteer, donate money, or buy a toy online visit https://southside.toysfortots.org/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Presidents were always very good, pleasant and kind to us." - Retired Marine Lt. Col. Jeff White on piloting Marine One.