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Local Marines may protest Baxter's Walmart Saturday

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news Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd Dispatch
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Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

An area Marine Corps League has waged war on the Baxter Walmart.

Maybe.

It’s all likely a misunderstanding that may soon be worked out, but as of Thursday, the Marine Corps League, Heartland Detachment, is planning a peaceful protest and boycott of the Walmart in Baxter Saturday.

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Heartland Detachment Commandant Kevin Goedker said Thursday that Walmart officials told the Marines last Friday that they would allow them to collect toy donations for their local “Toys for Kids” program but said then a Walmart manager reneged on that offer on Monday, and instead the superstore would still be collecting toys for the “Toys for Tots” program.

But Walmart general manager Kirk Helmberger told the Dispatch Thursday that Walmart has been collecting toys for the local group all week and he didn’t understand why the local Marines would protest his store.

Goedker, also a Brainerd City Council member, said the area Marine Corps League has provided Christmas toys to less fortunate children in the Brainerd lakes area for more than 30 years. The league, in conjunction with The Salvation Army, provides Christmas toys to more than 900 Brainerd area children in more than 400 families. The Heartland Detachment, while supportive of the national Marine Corps “Toys for Tots” program, parted ways with the organization in 1997 because the toys collected locally were being sent to Quanico, Va., and then distributed. Now 100 percent of the toys collected for the local “Toys for Kids” program are distributed to local children, said Jerry Wolters, Heartland Detachment senior vice commandant.

Goedker said last year Walmart stopped allowing them to have a drop box at Walmart as part of a corporate policy, which they understood. This year a Marine noticed a “Toys for Tots” drop box at Walmart and two members of the Heartland Detachment visited with Walmart managers, including Helmberger, last Friday, and explained the situation. Goedker said Walmart staff told them they would change the drop box from “Toys for Tots” to “Toys for Kids” and local volunteers would begin collecting the toys for the “Toys for Kids” program.

But when Wolters went to Walmart Monday to collect toys from the bin he said a Walmart manager, not Helmberger, was rude to him and said that the toys weren’t going to go to “Toys for Kids” and the “Toys for Tots” sign remained at the bin.

The exchange rankled the Marines and their volunteers, who maintain 55-60 toy collection bins within the Brainerd area. By Thursday they planned a peaceful protest at the store from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and were asking residents to boycott the store at least on Saturday and to do their shopping at businesses that support the “Toys for Kids” program, including Fleet Farm, Kohl’s and Best Buy.

Contacted by the Dispatch Thursday afternoon, Helmberger said he had heard rumblings about 20 minutes before a reporter’s call that the Heartland Detachment was planning to protest on Saturday but was unsure why. He said “Toys for Tots” was a national program that Walmart has endorsed and since there isn’t a Brainerd “Toys for Tots” program, they decided to collect toys for a “Toys for Tots” program in Crosby, the nearest location. But when Helmberger learned from the Heartland Detachment League last Friday about the local “Toys for Kids” program, he had to clear it with the corporation before making the switch. On Monday another manager told Wolters that Walmart was continuing to collect for “Toys for Tots.” Wolters said she told him the toys were going to the “Toys for Tots” program in St. Cloud.

Helmberger said Thursday the bin has been filling up and he wished the “Toys for Kids” volunteers would come pick up the toys. Wolters, contacted again by the Dispatch, said he would head over there and see if he could pick up the toys for the program.

Goedker tried to contact Helmberger later Thursday afternoon but he was gone for the day, Goedker said. So Goedker said he would attempt to contact Helmberger Friday morning to see if he could get an agreement in writing so there were no other misunderstandings. As of Thursday, Goedker said the protest was still being planned until he had a written agreement. The Marines had already been creating protest signs. A Facebook event had been created for the protest.

“That makes me very happy,” Goedker said, speaking of the possibility that “Toys for Kids” was once again allowed to collect toys at Walmart.

JODIE TWEED may be reached at jodie.tweed@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5858.

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