PORTLAND, Ore. — Between the drills, setting up pop-up vaccine and testing sites or giving hospital staff a helping hand while they dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, it's been a long couple years for many soldiers with the Oregon Army National Guard.
"Our soldiers tend to take care of themselves last," said Capt. Justin Nelson with the Oregon Army National Guard. "Currently it is really seeing that most our soldiers are taking care of their family, they're focusing on their careers."
As part of their commitment, soldiers drill for one weekend a month and for two weeks a year in the summer. But they can also be deployed at any moment, with the risk of not having a regular job to return to — which can be especially hard this time of year.
This is where Milwaukie-Portland Elks Lodge #142 comes in. For the past 20 years, the lodge has helped Oregon Army National Guard soldiers and their family have the Christmas they deserve.
"As long as there are veterans, the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks will never forget them." said Emma Pletz, a spokesperson for the lodge.
To help keep that promise, the Elks Lodge organizes a food drive every year, sending soldiers home with enough food for a month.
"Usually they get a full-sized turkey, dressing, cranberries, produce, fresh bread," Pletz said.
But the Guardsmen are not only taking home food, they're picking out a bunch of toys.
Inside the Oregon Army National Guard's Northeast Portland armory, the Elks Lodge sets up a toy shop of sorts, a place where 25 soldiers can pick out free toys for their kids — all of them donated through the KGW Great Toy Drive.
"To come in and see a plethora of gifts that they can pick something out and fill their box up for their kids ... I mean, they're so happy. It's overwhelming at times," said Capt. Nelson.
Pletz says she's seen the emotion firsthand on their faces after walking through the tables full of toys.
"Looking back over the years, you have these big strong military guys that are in tears by the time they leave because they didn't know how they were gonna have a Christmas."
After a "thank you" delivered with emotion, Pletz said that last year a soldier returned hours after walking out with an armful of toys and boxes of food. He walked back in with a simple thank you note featuring a picture drawn on it by his daughter.
"It was just really, really special to know that the kids were also so appreciative of the efforts that had gone on," Pletz said.
How to donate to the KGW Great Toy Drive
Donations can be made in several ways:
- Donate funds online at KGW.com/toy.
- Drop off toy donations at any iQ Credit Union.
- Drop off toy donations at local Toyota Dealerships and they’ll match a toy donation.
- Drop off toy donations at Fred Meyer.
- Support the “Week of Giving.” Ziply Fiber will give $5 per fiber installation the week of Nov. 14.
- Drop off toy donations at 300 other participating partner locations. For a complete list of locations, please visit KGW.com/toy.