Darlene Doughty walked into one of several land/sea containers behind a church in south Bakersfield where her local Toys for Tots organization keeps thousands of donated toys before their distribution in mid-December.

Then her tears started falling.

"I sat down and started crying," she said. "I think about the kids who won't have a present to open. I don't want them to feel forgotten. I don't want them to feel left out."

In three years as an unpaid volunteer, Doughty has never seen the local organization's toy chest look so bare. As volunteer Jose Lopez opened one storage container after another — each organized by gender and age-appropriateness — it quickly became apparent that most of the containers were nearly empty.

For the first time, Doughty is worried that thousands of less fortunate children could be turned away this Christmas.

They gave away some 23,000 toys last year, she said. Right now, they have enough for 4,000, maybe 5,000 kids.

One factor is the closure of Toys R Us stores, for years a major donor and partner with the local Toys for Tots campaign.

"Toys R Us has always helped us get toys," Doughty said.

The store's donation bins attracted hundreds of shoppers who would complete their holiday gift list, then add a few more to brighten the smiles of children they'd never met but whose lives they wanted to improve.

Jamesie Gridiron, another volunteer, said Toys for Tots Bakersfield SW Kern covers a huge geographic area, including Bakersfield, the Tehachapi area, Shafter, Wasco, Taft, Lamont, Arvin, Frazier Park and several other communities across the county.

"To see the smiles on these children's faces, to see the sparkle in their eyes," Gridiron said. "That's worth a small investment in a new, unwrapped toy."

While the closure of Toys R Us has played a significant part in this year's scarcity of toys, other factors may also have played a part.

Volunteers have been out in shopping centers conducting toy drives, but public reaction has been lukewarm. Volunteers believe people in the community are simply not yet aware of the impending crisis.

And when the news get out, the community will rise to the challenge.

U.S. Marine Reserve Staff Sgt. Jerry Apple was at one such event at Valley Plaza on Nov 24. The Toys for Tots program was founded in 1947 by reservist Maj. Bill Hendricks and his wife, Diane — and Marines like Apple remain active in the annual effort.

Apple said he believes things have been a bit disorganized this year, but he's confident the residents of Bakersfield will save the day.

"I do," he said. "I think we will. I think the community will come through."

Oorah!

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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