About 10 miles south of Pittsburgh, huge cardboard boxes of donated toys are scattered across 20,000 square feet of chilly, donated West Mifflin warehouse space.
“You can see it’s a pretty big area but it fills up pretty quickly. Once we distribute toys, it gets empty but then it gets full again within a week or two,” said First Sergeant Jason Polanco, who coordinates the U.S. Marines' Toys for Tots program for southern Allegheny County. The group gave out nearly 130,000 toys last year.
“I’m hoping we’ll surpass that this year, but we’ll see,” Polanco said.
The national Toys for Tots program began in 1947. These days, most toys are donated by individuals; some come from toy companies; and others are purchased by the Toys for Tots Foundation.
Dozens of volunteers from around the region join Polanco to help organize the local contributions.
“We try to sort by age, and then by gender as well,” he said.
But some volunteers, like Nicole Fitzpatrick of Mt. Lebanon, are skeptical about the process and determined to challenge gender stereotypes. Volunteers have been discussing the issue amongst themselves throughout the morning, she said.
"Should we even be dividing by gender?" she said. "[Volunteers] are sneaking a lot of cars and things that are traditionally 'boys' into the 'girls' pile.”
And they’re doing the opposite, too. Even if the packaging doesn’t explicitly indicate gender, everyone at the warehouse seems to know that “boys” and “girls” toys have almost always meant dinosaurs and trucks versus dolls and stickers.
For Carol Marchitello of Harrison City, the traditional gender divide is still her first instinct. She picked up a toy fire station.
“I’d say it’s for a boy,” she said. “But I guess it could be for either.”
Dan Loschiavo of Brighton Heights put a football in the boys pile, but said he doesn’t exactly know why.
“It’s always been more just traditional, what you grew up with,” he explained.
Loschiavo said he thinks challenging those ideas is a fairly new cultural phenomenon. Some of the male volunteers are still wrapping their heads around mixing up the status quo. Some said they played with footballs, and their sons played with footballs. As children, they wouldn’t have been interested in getting an Easy Bake Oven.
“Bob the Builder stuff, it’s like do I put it in the guys or the girls? It’s a dilemma,” said one male volunteer.
Leigh Ann Libert of Friendship said she thinks building toys, instruments and karaoke machines can go in either pile.
She’s been prodding others to think more critically about assuming a gender divide. And in this warehouse, she can.
Each chapter of Toys for Tots has a lot of autonomy when it comes to deciding how to sort and distribute toys, and Polanco gives the volunteers full discretion. He wants the boys' and girls' piles to be even, but otherwise, volunteers can use their own judgment.
Libert likes that there’s a unisex pile for children aged 2 years or younger, before the segregation begins.
“So your genitals determine what you play with?” said Libert. “That seems unfair to me, because I know what I liked playing with as a kid. I know little boys who love playing what would be called girly things.”
She said she's troubled by some of the packaging, like a miniature Tech Deck labeled “girls skateboard,” and questioned what the difference would be between that and a regular skateboard. She said the great toy gender divide is mostly an industry and cultural problem, not a Toys for Tots problem, but she sees bright spots this year, too, like lots of Wonder Woman and female "Star Wars" action figures.
For now, this chapter of Toys for Tots gets a checklist of what each individual kid wants, and they try to fill those orders no matter which bin they have to pull from.