Spokesmodel, fitness professional, and best-selling author Mai Tran will never forget what she and her family experienced after fleeing Vietnam following years of war. She'll also never forget the Salvation Army, and how the organization provided crucial support as her family struggled to raise young Mai and five older siblings in central Massachusetts.
As the 2021 holiday season arrives, the glamourous face of Cardillo Weight Belts and other high-quality fitness, nutrition, and workout products is beginning her third November and December toy drive to benefit children whose families are today being helped by The Salvation Army in Fitchburg.
“My father found it extremely difficult to feed his family back then,” Mai recalled in remarks that were part of a press release announcing the holiday toy drive. “Even when he worked six days a week, it was not a good situation. Then someone told him about The Salvation Army and how they were able to help families who were facing tough times.”
It was The Salvation Army in Fitchburg that "made Christmas possible for our family," Mai said, in recalling her childhood memory of the Army's impact on her household more than 40 years ago. "It's as simple as that. From providing a turkey meal to giving presents to me and my siblings. Had it not been for them, we wouldn't have had Christmas at all."
This family- and community-oriented effort, however, actually involves two communities: both Fitchburg, MA and Everett, MA. That's because the main collection point for donated toys to benefit children in need in Fitchburg is actually a business storefront in Everett, MA. Mai Tran has been close with Cardillo Weight Belts CEO and Founder Steve Cardillo since she began serving as the company's spokesmodel several years ago. A former competitive powerlifter, bodybuilder, and hockey player, Cardillo's company has become a household name among the most elite weightlifters, football players, WWE wrestling superstars and others for manufacturing the highest quality weight lifting belts on the market.
While the belts are manufactured out of state, the company's operations - as well as an array of related marketing functions and retail product sales under the CardilloUSA brand - are largely run from the back offices of the ANC Nutrition Store on Main Street in Everett, MA. The annual toy drive has become a partnership between Mai Tran, Cardillo, and Peter Morel - a relative and longtime business associate of Cardillo's who owns and operates the American Nutrition Center (ANC) store at 718 Broadway in Everett. That's the drop-off point for all toy donations through the end of December. All new and unwrapped donations can be delivered in person or dropped off there, or shipped by U.S. Postal service or commercial carrier services.
"I want to start earlier since there is a shortage of toys," Cardillo said in a text message, referring to the global supply chain disruptions impacting the flow of goods worldwide. "We've done this at ANC (in Everett) for the Town of Fitchburg for the past two years. It's been extremely successful."
Morel is not only a business associate of Cardillo's, he was also the subject of Cardillo's 2011 book "How A Champion Is Made" - which goes through the training process that Cardillo used to turn a teenage Morel into a bodybuilding champ. Cardillo's co-author, Mark Zapullo, also worked with Mai Tran on her Amazon-bestselling 2020 title: "Active Girls, Healthy Women."
This group of elite fitness professionals, authors, and entrepreneurs have been working together on business ventures for years. Now, the same commitment that has produced so much success for them is going into The Salvation Army toy drive.
“I believe that every toy matters because every child matters,” Mai said in 2019, when her first toy drive campaign was launched. “My hope is that ... more families will be able to enjoy the holidays from all of us coming together to help deliver some magic and put smiles on each child’s face."
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 toy drive was even bigger than 2019. Mai Tran and Cardillo hope to do even more for children in need and The Salvation Army this year.
"This caring organization was there when we came to this great country and needed assistance. It continues to do wonderful things for the residents of the community," Mai Tran told the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise in an interview last year. "I just feel so incredibly blessed to be able to come and give back to the Salvation Army ... knowing that we are not only helping so many families and children have a very special Christmas this year, but also for them to create wonderful memories to cherish for the rest of their lives, just like it did for me and my family.”