Retired Marine's mission is Christmas joy

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 12:34 a.m.

At this time of year, Springdale's Marine Hall is a bit more like Santa's workshop than the meeting place for a military veterans organization.

But that's all part of the holiday magic that the local Toys for Tots efforts create. The nationwide program, which was started by the Marine Reserve in the 1940s, collects Christmas presents and donates them to children in need.

From the looks of it, a program out of the Allegheny Valley Detachment 827 of the Marine Corps League Inc. could give Santa a run for his money. At the center of those efforts, and perhaps as busy this time of year as the jolly old elf, is retired Marine Emil Zilka, Jr.

The Frazer resident has been involved with Toys for Tots since 1986, when he was stationed in New York. He got his start with efforts there that brought in 10,000 to 15,000 donations for children in the Long Island area, he said.

When he returned home to the Alle-Kiski Valley, the veteran of two tours in Vietnam got involved with the detachment. One of the charter members of the group 20 years ago, he now serves as its commandant.

Zilka also serves as coordinator for the group's Toys for Tots collections. The program covers northeastern Allegheny County, northwestern Westmoreland County and all of Armstrong County.

As coordinator, he oversees collection and distribution of thousands of toys. They go to as many as 600 kids a year. He also manages the administrative end of things and organizes the efforts of the 35 or so members of detachment that are involved along with some of their wives.

The detachment aims to give kids age appropriate toys ranging from scooters to stocking stuffers. A peek at the many donations, from action figures to stuffed animals and board games to Barbie dolls, reveals something that is sure to cover every kid's Christmas wish.

For Zilka, though, there's one item on his own wish list that is a bit unexpected — plastic bags for packing up the donations to be distributed.

“If somebody wants to donate large plastic bags,” he said. “We will probably go through four to 6,000 of them bagging this stuff up.”

He may be busy, but it's all of the volunteers, Zilka said, that deserve the credit. Everyone from World War II veterans to those who have served in recent tours gets involved.

“As for my members,” he said, “they just do it to do it. They feel a willingness to help out the community.”

Helping out the community through Toys for Tots, means everything from picking up carloads of toys from collection sites like businesses and schools to being part of the collection drives themselves, like the one taking place on Saturday at the Allegheny Township Community Building that challenges the public to help organizers fill a school bus with donations.

And it's not only the Marines who help make the season bright through the Toys-for-Tots program. Zilka notes that many people help by making monetary or other donations.

One person who was especially inspired to get involved is Al Todd. The Allison Park man and his company, Thrivent Financial, team up to donate bikes to the program. Many of them go to the detachment. This year, he said, they expect to receive as many as 300.

For Todd, the work of Zilka and the detachment is an inspiration.

“These guys, their efforts are year ‘round,” he said. “I look to them as the example of how you're supposed to help other people.”

This will be Zilka's last year as the coordinator, but that doesn't mean that he, like his fellow Marines and volunteers, won't remain involved for years to come.

“The same guys that you see here,” he said, scanning the retired Marines of ages registering families for the toy drive, “years from now, they'll still be here, doing the same thing.”

Julie E. Martin is a freelance writer.

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