WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama is urging people to give to charities for the holiday season as she brought more than 800 gifts Friday from White House staff to donate to the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots campaign.
The first lady also got a surprise invitation from a soldier to be his date at next year's Marine Corps Ball.
Lance Cpl. Aaron Leeks, 20, of Frederick, Md., said he asked Obama to accompany him because he's a fan and admires her work to support the military.
When Obama was sorting toys at the charity event and came close to Leeks, he leaned over a toy bin and got her attention to pop the question. The first lady smiled and called over a staff member as she chatted with Leeks.
"She said she'd love to go," Leeks said. "Actually, she said I'd need to speak to her husband, too, but she said she'd love to."
Leeks said he plans to follow up on his invitation. In January, he will be deployed for the first time to Afghanistan but plans to attend the ball when he's home next year.
Later at the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked whether the president would consider such an offer. Carney said that may be the first the president was hearing about this.
"The first lady's commitment to military families is very strong, indeed," he said. "So I'm sure she was flattered by the invitation."
Obama has supported the Toys for Tots campaign for each of the last three years and urges White House staff to buy gifts to donate. She said they had a 27 percent increase in donations this year.
"It's not too late to donate," she said. "It's still important to nudge our neighbors to give, give, give. We need people to bring in toys like never before."
Millions of families rely on such gifts to make the holidays special for their children, she said.
She hauled in a big red bag of toys, slung over her shoulder to the Washington military base Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. She wished volunteers a "Merry Christmas" and helped sort toys into bins marked for boy and girls by age group. Obama noted more toys are needed for older children, including books and games.
For people who are doing well this year, "it's up to us to dig deep and to make sure we take care of our neighbors out there who may be struggling," she said.
Organizers said the toys will be distributed to needy children in the Washington area.
Obama said her daughter Malia was impressed to learn that Toys for Tots was started by the Marines.
"You all have given so much to our country, as Malia has recognized, and you just keep giving more," Obama said.
Retired Marine Gen. Pete Osman, president and CEO of Quantico, Va.-based Toys for Tots, said Obama is their "No. 1 volunteer," and he called her commitment to military families "incredible."
"It sends a big signal to the military," he said of Obama's support. "When you've got someone like the first lady behind you, how can you go wrong?"
The charity's challenge this year, though, is rising demand as people are still suffering because of the economy, he said. The group has increased the number of toy drives nationwide this year to 730.
The event was Michelle Obama's last holiday stop in Washington. Later Friday, she and daughters Malia and Sasha were scheduled to depart for their annual holiday trip to see family in Hawaii. She said she didn't know when the president would be able to join them. Congress is still grappling with budget issues to close out the year.
Toys for Tots: http://toysfortots.org
Brett Zongker can be reached at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat