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A Secret Donor Gives $100,000 in Gifts to Toys for Tots Drive

The San Diego Union-Tribune

November 20, 2022

For 12 years, a mystery man has spread joy to needy families throughout the region by making sure kids aren’t forgotten during the holidays. Just as Santa Claus is cloaked in mystery, an anonymous philanthropist turns into a secret gift giver in San Diego every fall.

This marks the fifth year the mystery benefactor has purchased thousands of dollars of toys from a local Geppetto’s for the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program based at Camp Pendleton.

In 2018 and 2019, the silent donor purchased slightly more than $50,000 worth of toys both years. In 2020, the year of the pandemic, he upped his spending spree to more than $60,000. Last November, his purchase total jumped to $80,000. Now there is a new high. On Nov. 10, also the birthday of the U.S. Marines, the gift giver spent $100,700 — and that was after a 10 percent discount extended by Geppetto’s owners, Brian and Danielle Miller. The anonymous donor’s generosity adds up to more than $340,000 in electric trains, bikes, Lego sets, dolls and plush toys over the past five years alone.

Camp Pendleton Marine Maj. Thomas Evers and Master Sgt. Carlos Cedeño, who directly oversee the local toy drive, were at the Geppetto’s store in The Forum Carlsbad mall at 6 a.m. Thursday with 25 Marines who loaded boxes, and boxes, and boxes of toys. They filled two U-Haul trucks. By 8 a.m., the vehicles were loaded. As in years past, when the shopping was finished by 8 a.m., the register receipt was unrolled and held by a line of Santa’s helpers, stretching out the length of the 25-foot truck.

“After this,” Cedeño says, “we’ll unload at the warehouse and get the gifts sorted out so we can start giving them to the families in need.”

“Last year we blessed over 100,000 families, so this year it will be more than that,” says Maj. Evers, referring to the overall annual toy drive.

This marks the 12th year that the silent stranger has made increasingly large purchases for the Toys for Tots holiday campaign. In the initial years, presents were purchased largely from the now-defunct Toys R Us. At first, Miller admits he was leery when the unidentified man’s personal assistant approached him five years ago and proposed making a $50,000 purchase on the man’s behalf.

“I was skeptical. It could be a scam,” Miller told me. But he checked the donor’s track record from Toys R Us and concluded it was on the up and up. As it turned out, it was a smart business decision.

The most expensive items chosen on Thursday were each about $450: a child-size drivable Maserati (the secret Santa bought four) and a huge Lego Ferrari kit. He also purchased 18 children’s scooters, four bikes, a dozen electric trains, tether ball sets, German-crafted metal trucks, jewelry and craft kits, dress-up costumes, Hot Wheels, lots of Barbies and other dolls, plush toys and huggable Squishmallows in the latest holiday-themed shapes.

Each year the donor has refused to be identified or interviewed. He was represented at the store Thursday by his equally silent assistant.

Miller agreed to act as an intermediary and forwarded several interview questions from me before the event in the hope of learning why this part-time San Diegan is so generous.

Once again, he declined to answer. “They don’t want the story to be about them,” Miller explains. “They want it to be about Toys for Tots. The only reason he likes some publicity is to inspire others to act generously and give to the Toys for Tots program.”

His generosity already has influenced others. The owner of The Forum mall donated $1,000 to purchase more gifts on Thursday, and the Millers contributed an additional 200 toys.

Miller did confirm that the philanthropist is a man and has no children or grandchildren. So, this is his way of bringing laughter and smiles to kids’ faces during the holidays.

He relies on his assistant, guided by the Millers, to select the most popular items for kids each year. The Marines who helped load the items Thursday were invited to choose the final $20,000 in gifts so they could play an active role.

Geppetto’s owner does not know if the secret Santa served in the Armed Forces. “But I know he likes the military a lot,” Miller says. “The donor wants to be a strong partner to military families who work so hard and sacrifice so much for the safety and welfare of our citizens.”

The Nov. 10 shopping spree was the largest single purchase ever made in one of his stores, Miller confirms. And Evers notes that it is the largest Toys for Tots donation by an individual on record in Southern California.