Emilee Morales, 8, and her mom Debra Ann Morales-Richards ‘adopted’ 17 Marines for the holidays.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
The wooden, oval-shaped dining room table in Debra Morales-Richard’s East Toledo home was crowded with youngsters and covered with markers, stickers, and paper.
Each of the children, some were related to Mrs. Morales-Richards and some were near strangers, crafted countless Christmas cards for some people they didn’t know.
One of the foam stickers ended up on the dog’s paw.
That’s what happens when you accidentally adopt an entire platoon of Marines and promise to deliver a Merry Christmas.
“This was an accident that turned into a blessing that turned into friendships,” said Mrs. Morales-Richards on Monday night.
In November, Emilee Morales, 8, came home from Raymer Elementary School and asked her mother if they could adopt a soldier for Christmas.
That’s how the Morales-Richards family operates: They’re always giving and finding ways to help anyone who needs it.
Mrs. Morales-Richards, 31, learned that, in part, from her father, Oscar Morales, a retired Toledo police officer.
Mrs. Morales-Richards started online research — she contacted a representative from one Web site that coordinated gift giving, but didn’t hear back right away.
She then found anysoldier.com and signed up to adopt a Marine who shared her maiden name.
When the confirmation letter came, she found out she had unknowingly adopted an entire platoon. Seventeen men and women in all. That’s a lot of Christmas to give.
She told her husband, John Richards, what happened and the two had a family meeting with their five children.
“John said we’ll figure it out,” said Mrs. Morales-Richards, who worked for a year as an Ottawa County Sheriff’s deputy before being diagnosed with lupus.
Mr. Richards, 37, now a corrections officer at the Toledo Correctional Institution, spent four years in the Air Force and though his deployments were never longer than six months and never during the holidays, he remembers what it was like to be away from his family.
Plus, his oldest daughter, Brynn Richards, 17, ships out for the Navy on Aug. 8.
In the family meeting, one of the children, Ashlee Humberger, 13, had the idea to ask friends on Facebook for help.
With little feedback, they expanded their base, posting on local Facebook groups, explaining the promise they hoped to not break for a group of Marines who, Mrs. Morales-Richards found out, are mostly experiencing their first holiday away from home.
Soon, the help started rolling in and Mrs. Morales-Richards found herself driving all over Toledo to meet total strangers who bought needed items or wanted to make a monetary donation.
One woman from Tennessee sent $20 to help with shipping costs.
“I’m just amazed at how it turned out,” said Mrs. Morales-Richards. “I never expected the community — random strangers — to come over and have fun.”
One of those strangers, who quickly became a friend, is Carrie Harris of Oregon.
On Monday, Ms. Harris, a native Toledoan who moved back to the area from Alabama in April, brought three of her grandchildren to make cards for the Marines. Her grandchildren also wrote more personal letters to send.
“My heart runneth over,” said Ms. Harris. “I cried. I didn’t realize they had so much in them. I am a proud granny tonight.”
The giving hasn’t stopped there — children who have been diagnosed with cancer and are receiving treatment at Toledo Children’s Hospital also made cards, Mrs. Morales-Richards said.
“These kids are sick and they’re dying, and they’re worried about our soldiers,” she said.
Two Raymer teachers had their students make cards too, Mrs. Morales-Richards said.
Ashlee — who stays with her father during the week — will come home on Friday and find her room is nearly full of white T-shirts, socks, snack foods, toiletries, games, and other presents donated by people around the area and purchased by the Morales-Richards family.
There is still more that’s needed, and shipping isn’t cheap: $18 a box.
The family hopes to make this a year-round project and eventually launch their own nonprofit organization: Emilee’s Soldiers.
“I want to do this every year,” said Emilee, who said she might want to be a Toledo police officer when she grows up. “It makes me feel good.”
Mrs. Morales-Richards said the spirit of giving runs deep in their family.
On Thanksgiving, Emilee asked her mother, “Can we go feed people?”
Last Christmas, they gave Christmas gifts — lots of them — to the families of three of Emilee’s classmates. And once they randomly decided to make sandwiches to give to homeless people in downtown Toledo.
“All my kids are like that,” Mrs. Morales-Richards said.
If preparing Christmas for 17 Marines wasn’t enough of a coordination challenge, why not add one more?
Mrs. Morales-Richards eventually heard back from the first Web site she contacted and it hooked her up with another soldier.
“I made sure it was only one,” she said with a laugh.
Anyone wishing to help the Morales-Richards family can find them on Facebook at facebook.com/groups/AdoptASoldierToledoOhio/ or email EmileesSoldiers@aol.com.