• Washington Post

A Teen Overcame His Shyness to Collect and Give away 54,000 Toys

Angie Miller
Reed Marcum with some of the toys donated by people in McAlester, Okla., last year for the annual 4-H Toy Giveaway that he started in 2016.

Reed Marcum was a shy kid. He struggled with anxiety, he said, and was sometimes bullied at school.

He knew what it was like to feel left out.

So when he was 11 years old and learned that one of his fifth grade classmates in McAlester, Okla. wasn’t getting much for Christmas because his family was having a hard time financially, he approached his mother.

“He came home and said, ‘Mom, can we do this?'” said Angie Miller, 52, recalling Reed’s request to do a toy drive.

Miller agreed to help, and posted a video on Facebook that Reed had made, asking for the community’s help with a toy giveaway, which Reed decided to do as his 4-H youth project.

“I wanted to make sure that everyone in my class had a toy under the tree and that no kid got left out,” said Reed, now 18, recalling that afternoon at his elementary school in December 2016.

It was a familiar idea for Reed – he and his mom had coordinated a book bag giveaway at the beginning of that school year to provide students with school supplies. Reed loved doing it.

“He has an old soul,” his mother said.

That first year of the toy drive was a success.

“There was a great response – lots of people went out and bought new toys to donate, or they sent money for us to buy them,” Miller said, adding that volunteers helped hand out about 1,000 toys and treat bags before Christmas that year at her husband’s legal office in McAlester.

J. Michael Miller is Reed’s stepfather, and he offered the use of his office again the following year when Reed wanted to hold a second toy drive. The tradition continued every year after that.

“I knew we had to keep going because there was such a need,” Reed said.

He also knew what it was like to worry about affording Christmas, he said.

“My parents divorced when I was 6 or 7, and it was just me and mom at home, and we didn’t have a lot of money,” Reed said. “Other family members helped us with Christmas that year, and the community rallied around us with food and such.”

“When I was 11, I wanted to pay that forward,” he said.

Now in its seventh year, Reed’s 4-H Toy Giveaway is being held today, with about 200 volunteers handing out more than 10,000 gifts to children from McAlester and surrounding towns in southeastern Oklahoma.

Since 2016, more than 54,000 toys have been given away, Reed said. The toy giveaway is now so popular that it’s become a drive-through event, with each child selecting one new toy, along with new pajamas, gloves, hats, socks and underwear. The items are either bought and donated by individuals, or purchased with money sent in by people and area businesses.

“We have walls of toys lined up on each side of the cars, and kids tell us which ones to grab as their parents drive them through the line,” Reed said. “Seeing the happy looks on their faces is always the best part.”

Reed is now a freshman majoring in sociology and prelaw at Oklahoma State University, but he still coordinated the toy drive this year and he’ll drive two and a half hours from Stillwater to help hand out gifts in his hometown. He said he’s always the first volunteer to greet families when they reach the front of the line.

In 2021, he put on the event with help from family and volunteers even after tragedy struck his family. Reed’s 30-year-old brother, Sgt. Miles Tarron, died of unexplained circumstances while serving with the Army in Alaska. Reed and his family went ahead with the toy giveaway just two weeks after Tarron’s death. Additionally, Reed’s grandmother died that same year, and so did one of his 4-H mentors.

“It’s too important – there’s no way I wouldn’t be there,” Reed said. “Christmas is stressful for a lot of families. The toy drive makes it a little easier for them.”

In McAlester, which has a population of 18,000, the poverty rate is almost 24 percent, according to World Population Review.

“It’s remarkable that Reed does this every year – he has a big heart and a definite drive to improve the community,” said John Browne, mayor of McAlester.

“Oklahoma isn’t a high-income state by any means, so Reed doing this at least gives every kid something,” he added. “The toy drive also gives people hope, and that’s the greatest thing you can give to anyone.”

Reed’s 4-H leader, Greg Owen, said he’s watched Reed work through his shyness to become a leader in the community.

“Reed is humble about what he’s done, but the truth is, he never stops giving,” Owen said, noting that Reed organizes fundraisers for the annual toy drive and backpack giveaways, and also holds a silent auction every year to benefit pediatric cancer patients and military veterans.

“He’s gotten the whole community involved – everyone wants to do what they can to help now, whether it’s volunteering or donating,” Owen added. Reed’s various projects have raised more than $3.5 million in funds and donations since 2016, he said.

Reed said he’s motivated to keep going every time he sees cars full of excited kids come through the toy line.

He said he remembers when he was in ninth grade and a couple of children showed up with their parents to pick out their Christmas toys. The kids weren’t wearing shoes.

“It was cold outside, so some of our volunteers bought them socks and shoes and jackets, and that’s when we knew we should also hand out clothing every year,” he said. “When you see how grateful the parents look, you know it’s all worthwhile.”