CROSS LAKE, Maine — It’s understandable if people confuse Rudy St. Peter for Santa Claus, especially this time of year when the former U.S. Marine is in the middle of his annual project to bring Christmas happiness to thousands of northern Maine children.
“We have the opportunity to really help and give hope to a child,” St. Peter said. “There is a dire need in this area.”
St. Peter, along with Leigh, his wife of 43 years, spearhead northern Aroostook County’s Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program, which last year delivered toys and books to more than 2,300 children from the St. John Valley to Westfield.
Last week, the Cross Lake couple was at the RF Chamberland warehouse in St. Agatha taking inventory of the toys and books already gathered for this holiday season.
“This is what’s been delivered so far,” he said, gesturing to a dozen pallets piled more than 9-feet high with donated gifts. “There will be more.”
The boxes in the warehouse came directly from Quantico, Va., home base of the Marines’ Toys for Tots program.
“They are the leaders of this program,” St. Peter said of the Quantico Marines. “They decide how many toys [we get] based on how many kids we say need them.”
Municipal and community representatives submit lists of children by age and gender which are then forwarded to Toys for Tots headquarters for approval, St. Peter said.
Those toys already in the warehouse will be joined by thousands more donated locally or purchased with donated funds.
“All of the toys donated in a specific town go to kids in that town,” St. Peter said. “Same with the [donated] money, it is used to buy toys for the kids in that town.”
Toys for Tots began in 1947 when Maj. Bill Hendricks, backed by members of the Los Angeles Marine Corps Reserve, collected and distributed 5,000 toys to needy children.
The following year the Marine Corps officially adopted the program and took it nationwide. The program now distributes around 435 million toys annually.
Tough economic times and high unemployment are among the reasons Toys for Tots is needed in northern Maine, St. Peter said.
Plus, he said the area’s rural location can mean it is left out of similar programs that take place in more populated areas of the state.
“When I was commander of the Stockholm [American] Legion post, I saw that rural kids were not getting toys like the kids in more populated areas,” he said. “As a group, the Legion is supposed to focus on community service, so I figured we could look at getting toys for kids for Christmas.”
That was five years ago, and for the St. Peters, the thrill they feel each time they deliver a gift is far from wearing off.
“When you hand a child a gift and you see their faces light up, it is really something,” Leigh St. Peter said. “My heart just swells.”
Over the years, the couple raised 22 foster children in their home.
“So we know how hard it can be for some parents,” Leigh St. Peter said. “This is our way of helping.”
And the St. Peters are getting a lot of local assistance from around the County, starting with free use of the RF Chamberland warehouse space.
Joining the cause are the Presque Isle Fire Department, American Legion posts from Fort Kent, Madawaska and Eagle Lake, Young Marines of the Marine Corps League in Presque Isle, members of the Loring Jobs Corp, Twin Rivers Paper Company of Madawaska and The County Federal Credit Union.
On top of that, at least one upcoming pageant in Presque Isle will serve as a toy donation drop-off location at the end of the month and a central Aroostook toymaker just donated thousands of wooden toys.
Rudy St. Peter said any new, unwrapped toy may be donated between now and Dec. 19 at drop boxes located around the area or by contacting him directly at 834-3504 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
And while the project brings Christmas smiles to children around Aroostook County, Leigh St. Peter said it brings as much joy to her husband, maybe even a little more.
“He’s really the biggest kid on earth,” she said. “This is letting him do things he never got to do with our own kids while they were growing up and could not do when he was a kid.”
As the calendar ticks down to Christmas 2013, Rudy St. Peter vowed to keep working to bring toys and smiles to area children.
“I plan on doing this the rest of my life,” he said. “This is about doing something even when people might not know you are the one doing it [and] that’s what counts.”