Kids will suffer after ‘Toys for Tots’ money taken
By KIM JANSSEN AND THOMAS FRISBIE Staff Reporters December 20, 2011 12:26AM
Toys for Tots Vice President Thomas Dertz in the Toys For Tots warehouse where supply is low, usually boxes of toys are stacked up throughout the building, but not this year. Monday, December 19, 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times
Updated: January 21, 2012 8:13AM
Thousands of local kids won’t get Christmas presents this year after a former volunteer with a Chicago “Toys For Tots” program allegedly embezzled at least $25,000 from the well-known charity, officials with the group said.
The charity collects and buys about 20,000 toys each Christmas and distributes them to poor or disadvantaged children across Chicago and the suburbs. But the alleged theft means the group can’t afford to buy gifts for thousands of kids who would otherwise have opened them on Christmas Day, Toys for Tots Chicagoland President George Fortier said.
“These toys mean the world to children and their families, but I’m afraid we just won’t be able to do it for them this year,” Fortier said.
Though Toys for Tots Chicagoland, which collects toys for but is not financially affiliated with the Marine Corps Reserve program, has been distributing toys donated at its collection centers and through its massive annual December motorcycle rally, it has been unable to make a bulk buy of extra toys as it normally does, Fortier said.
As a result, a file of hundreds of letters from struggling families and institutions pleading for help remain unanswered at its Bridgeview toy warehouse.
“It’s tough,” said the charity’s vice president Tom Dertz as he surveyed the emptying warehouse shelves and the pile of letters from recently bereaved, unemployed and plain down-on-their-luck parents. “These are people that often don’t have anything.”
Bridgeview Police have been investigating the alleged embezzlement by the volunteer for eight months, but no charges have been filed, and the investigation is ongoing, Det. Carl Michalski said.
The Toys for Tots Chicagoland accounts are not tied to the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots accounts, and money donated to the latter has not been impacted, a spokesman said.
News of the alleged theft has come as a shock to those helped by the program.
“Every kid likes to open a present at Christmas,” said Diana Balbuena, who wrote to the charity after her cousin Victor Ybarra was killed by a hit-and-run driver
Nov. 15. Ybarra had five sons, Angel, 11; Victor Jr., 10; Claudio, 8; Andrew, 6; and Jaime, 5, who are among the lucky children the charity has managed to find toys for.
“The family had huge hospital and funeral bills and couldn’t have done it otherwise,” Balbuena said. “It’s so sad for the children who’ll miss out.”
Board members uncovered the alleged theft in April, Fortier and Dertz said. When they started asking questions about one of the charity’s accounts, a board member resigned, saying that his wife was sick and needed to be cared for, they say. The former board member’s wife — who also volunteered with Toys for Tots — took an overdose of pills at the organization’s warehouse, they said.
Contacted Monday, the former board member strongly denied that he or his wife had done anything wrong. He acknowledged that his wife had been taken by ambulance to Christ Hospital from the Toys for Tots warehouse following an incident in April and said that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The former board member said his home was in foreclosure and that his financial troubles began when his wife “went on a spending spree.” He said he does not believe that she stole from Toys for Tots and that “nothing has been proven” but added that “anything’s possible, because she’s bipolar.”
Police have not spoken to him or his wife since April, he said.
Volunteers say there’s still a little time left for Chicagoans to donate toys at their warehouse at 8900 S. Odell. But they also hope that people will make financial donations online at chicagolandtft.org, so that next year’s Christmas is a happier one.
The missing $25,000 represented about a year’s worth of cash donations, and the funds are also needed to pay for road closures during their annual toy rally on Western Avenue, they say.
Mona Markham, 58, has been helping out at the charity for most of her life. She can still remember the joy of receiving a doll and spinning top from Toys for Tots as a 5-year-old girl in 1958.
“I’ve been through some hard times in my life, and they’ve helped me out with my three boys in the past,” she said. “Now they’re grown and they’re helping, too. It’s our way of paying back a wonderful organization — it’s like an extended family to me.
“It’s so disappointing that this would happen to them.”
This story contains corrected information.