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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Marines Bring Holiday Cheer to Orphans

MTEight-year-old Katya, left, posing with her sister Sasha during the holiday bash.
About 350 orphans from five orphanages celebrated Christmas early last Thursday with a holiday show, dancing, a movie and, of course, presents -- all courtesy of the U.S. Marines and the Moscow charity Love's Bridge.

The younger children, dressed in suits, clip-on ties and frilly velvet dresses, tugged on the sleeves of orphanage directors during lunch, asking repeatedly, "When will the discotheque be?"

The older children, who opted for trendy jeans and dresses rather than holiday wear, made last-minute plans for their orphanages' musical performances.

"It's to give the kids a festive opportunity to celebrate Christmas because life in an institution isn't very colorful," said Jessica Rothman, director of Love's Bridge.

Love's Bridge and the U.S. Marines, under their traditional Toys for Tots program, have been bringing Christmas gifts to orphanages separately since 1995. After jointly delivering presents last year, they teamed up this year to throw a big party for the orphans in the Olympic Penta Renaissance Hotel, which donated the use of its largest ballroom for the party and showed the children a movie in its theater.

"Inviting them to Moscow is, for them, so special. It's such a treat," Rothman said.

Ten-year-old Ilona agreed. "I like Moscow best of all. Out of all the cities there's no city like it," she said, as Lyosha, 8, blew his party favor in her ear.

As the party began, Rothman told them about the program for the day: "First we will eat, then there will be a show with Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, and then every orphanage will perform. Then there will be a discotheque --" all the children oohed -- "and then we will watch the movie 'Stuart Little 2.'"

The children cheered and broke into applause.

While the children were most excited about the movie and the dancing, at the end of the party they all got donated toiletries and brand-new toys: dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, puzzles and games.

Sergeant Agustin Torres, head of Toys for Tots in Moscow, said many people, especially at the U.S. Embassy, had given generous donations this year.

"The help is overwhelming," he said, adding that they received a large donation of money at the last minute. "On Monday we went out and bought $600 worth of toys."

The partnership between Love's Bridge and the Marines began last year, when some Marines began volunteering for the charity in their spare time. Rothman said that last March 40 tons of clothes were shipped from Sweden and were sitting in Love's Bridge's warehouse, and "the Marines sent their strong boys to help out." They sorted and boxed all the clothes in three days -- a job that usually takes two weeks.

The Marines called back later that year and asked to work together at Christmas. They collected donations and drove out to three orphanages with Love's Bridge to deliver the toys and eat Christmas dinner.

"This year they called in November and said, 'What are we doing this year? When are we starting?'" Rothman said.

She said they decided to hold parties in Moscow instead of driving out to the orphanages because it would be easier to organize and they could make it more special for the children with more activities.

Torres said Toys for Tots doesn't usually work with charities, but Love's Bridge was "extraordinary," and helped Toys for Tots deliver toys to the neediest children.

Love's Bridge works with orphans during the entire year.

Little Ilona proudly rattled off a long list of places in Moscow that she had visited because "Jessica [Rothman] gave money to our director": museums, theater productions, the circus and McDonald's.

The children especially liked the fast food at the party. Katya, 8, ran back to her table from the buffet yelling, "Guys! I got pizza! There's pizza!" Her friends promptly got up and ran to the buffet, while Katya squirmed in her seat, impatient for the dancing to start.

Finally she leaped out of her seat and started wiggling to a Lenny Kravitz song while her friends munched their pizza, telling them to watch her dance.

On Jan. 9 -- two days after Russian Orthodox Christmas -- Love's Bridge and the Marines will host a party for one large Moscow-area orphanage and orphans from Tula and Ryazan, who will start traveling the day before in order to attend the party.

Sergeant Justin Bondietti volunteered for Toys for Tots in his hometown of Fresno, California, but said Toys for Tots in Moscow is different because there are too few Marines to help the many children.

"I was at a collection point. We just stood on a corner all night collecting toys," he said. "But there, there's a lot of us, and we only do one little area, not like here, where we're the only Marines covering such a big area."

"One difference here is the quantity of kids," Torres said. "There's a lot of kids, a lot of orphanages. We can't give toys to all the kids in Moscow but we can give to some."

For more information about the Toys for Tots program, call Agustin Torres at the U.S. Embassy at 728-5000 ext. 4809.