MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
The COVID-19 crisis has created an overwhelming emotional and financial strain on families.
Many workers lost their jobs. Paychecks stopped coming. People were forced to find new ways to provide for their families. For some parents, providing gifts for their children this holiday season seems insurmountable.
Gunnery Sgt. Andrew Minton-Smith understands this financial burden all too well.
Minton-Smith, a lead logistician at Marine Corps Systems Command, grew up in a family that struggled financially. Life wasn’t always easy for his parents—especially during the holidays when children anxiously anticipate the euphoric rush of opening presents on Christmas morning.
“To put it bluntly, I grew up poor,” said Minton-Smith. “If it weren’t for generous organizations, my sister and I wouldn’t have had much of a Christmas.”
One of those organizations was Toys for Tots, a Marine Corps Reserve program that distributes toys to children whose parents cannot afford to buy gifts for Christmas. To this day, many parents rely on the program to provide holiday cheer to their family.
Decades later, Minton-Smith is paying it forward.
He now volunteers as a Marine representative for Toys for Tots. Since 2003, Minton-Smith has spent most Decembers attending holiday functions, educating the masses on the purpose and importance of Toys for Tots. In doing so, he also shares his own childhood experiences with the program.
As he explained, spreading this information helps to bring attention to a worthy Marine Corps program and ultimately a smile to a child’s face during the holidays.
“There are few things more heartwarming than seeing a child smile,” said Minton-Smith. “Christmas is supposed to be a magical time.”
Minton-Smith is one of many MCSC Marines and civilians who give back to their communities, much of which isn’t publicized. These acts of kindness can go a long way in improving the well-being of communities during a challenging year.
Bringing the cheer
Minton-Smith says volunteering with Toys for Tots isn’t a chore. He doesn’t view it as a job. He does it because he cares.
He proves these words true through his actions. Wilma Vaughn, the assistant coordinator for the Quantico Toys for Tots Campaign, said Minton-Smith has a passion for uplifting people and has never turned down an opportunity to speak with crowds about the importance of toy donations.
“Gunnery Sgt. Minton-Smith is our go-to Marine for speeches—he’s the face of our program,” said Vaughn. “Not only is he well-versed about the program, he’s also a family man with a huge heart.”
Minton-Smith said he’s had a lot of fun along the way. For example, he and another Marine once spoke before members of a swing dancing club in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. At the event’s conclusion, the dancers taught the Marines to swing dance.
“That was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had,” said Minton-Smith, with a laugh.
The families with whom Minton-Smith has connected have expressed appreciation for his and many other Marines’ efforts. A couple years ago, Minton-Smith video-chatted with a childhood friend whose family received gifts through Toys for Tots. The individual profusely thanked Minton-Smith for helping his family experience the Christmas they’d always envisioned.
Cyndi Dykes also praised Minton-Smith for his generosities. The Fredericksburg resident said she and her husband had fallen on hard times in 2019. Minton-Smith knew about the Dykes’ hardships and submitted a request to his coordinator to distribute some toys to the family.
That December, Minton-Smith showed up to their home with a box of toys for their children to unwrap on Christmas morning.
“My kids were so excited, their faces just lit up,” said Dykes, fighting back tears. “That’s what makes Toys for Tots so special. There are a lot of people in need, and to help out parents and bring cheer to children during the holidays is awesome.”
While Minton-Smith said he enjoys the priceless reactions of children upon seeing wrapped presents, he also considers how these efforts bring joy to parents who weren’t sure if their children would experience a traditional Christmas.
He said helping one another exemplifies the spirit of the season and plans to continue volunteering with Toys for Tots for many more years—even well into retirement.
“I want to do this as long as possible,” he said. “This is something I really enjoy doing.”
Life is about relationships
Todd Wagenhorst, the director of MCSC’s Operations and Programs, has plenty of stories to tell. But he’s more interested in hearing yours.
In early December, Wagenhorst’s eyes fixated on the dozens of photos adorning his office walls. Most images captured he and his colleagues scaling mountains, with the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop. His head filled with memories, triggering a wide smile.
“We had some really fun times,” said Wagenhorst. “And I learned a lot about these young Marines.”
About five years ago, Wagenhorst noticed many young Marines were struggling with issues in their personal lives. He wanted to find a way to leverage his own experiences to help these individuals circumvent their problems and reach their full potential.
In response, he began hosting hiking ventures and other activities aimed at increasing team-building among the MCSC workforce. He’s organized various mountain hikes, trips to historic locations and even an “escape room” activity.
As he explained, these gatherings help build comradery among the workforce, allowing them to get to know one another better. The events also enable individuals to relax, have fun and learn new ways to handle personal or professional stressors.
“Life is about relationships, and I think that is one thing we tend to struggle with the most at times,” said Wagenhorst. “It’s good to talk to Marines, learn more about them and help them through some good and tough times in a safe environment. I deeply care about them”
These team-building events have ballooned in popularity. While the COVID-19 crisis has prevented larger gatherings, Wagenhorst still hosts activities with smaller groups as an avenue for individuals to exercise, express themselves, and talk about anything going on in their lives.
The events also allow Wagenhorst to discuss his own past mistakes and successes as a learning tool for young Marines.
“I think there is a need to help people grow, not only as a Marine but as a person, spouse and parent,” said Wagenhorst. “These activities have grown into something that is very helpful to them and gives them a safe place to come and talk.”
‘I’m there for them’
Maj. Richard Witt, a sustainment team lead at MCSC, has participated in several Wagenhorst-led exercises. Witt said building relationships with Marines and civilians in an informal setting has been the best team-building experience he has encountered.
“His mentorship is invaluable to me,” said Witt. “Showing your team you are available for a hike in the woods, one-on-one lunch or a quick, closed-door session can create vertical and horizontal team cohesion and pay dividends for all parties for years to come.”
Witt isn’t alone in praising Wagenhorst’s efforts. In 2019, Wagenhorst received a letter from a Marine mentee who was leaving the command. The individual, who has requested anonymity, said Wagenhorst was more than a mentor—he was a father figure to him.
“Because of you, I was able to push myself further into becoming a better person,” the letter read. “I can’t express how thankful I am that I had the opportunity to build a relationship with you.”
Jack Cave, a division head at MCSC, commended Wagenhorst for his continued investment in the lives of junior Marines. Cave pointed out how Wagenhorst continues to commit himself to mentoring despite his busy schedule.
“An impactful mentor and coach, Mr. Wagenhorst dedicates numerous hours to sharing life lessons and challenging others to strive for personal and professional improvement,” said Cave. “He accomplishes all of this in addition to running the MCSC G3 shop, as well as family and grandchildren duties.”
Wagenhorst’s passion for mentoring others and helping them manage life issues was ingrained in him at an early age by his father, who retired from a technology company, pursued a degree in Nursing and then spent his life helping people in hospice care. Seeing his father’s positive attitude and desire to offer assistance inspired Wagenhorst to pay it forward.
“Talking, interacting with and caring for people is an important part of life,” said Wagenhorst. “I want the young Marines to know that if there is anything I can do to help them, I’m there for them.”
Minton-Smith’s and Wagenhorst’s efforts involve taking care of people—a hallmark characteristic of MCSC found in Brig. Gen. A.J. Pasagian’s Commander’s Intent. In a worldwide pandemic, lending a helping hand and enhancing others may be as important as ever this holiday season.