By Jack Quach
Every year, as the holiday season comes back around, barrels appear at fire stations across the City ready to overflow with stuffed animals, dolls and toys of every shape and size. This year, the San Francisco Firefighters’ Toy Program kicked off its Holiday Toy Drive on Nov. 29. All 44 fire stations have barrels to collect donations from community members.
But the 2021 holiday season stands unique in the history of the 72-year tradition. The Firefighters’ Toy Program looks to re-connect with thousands of families after a year marked with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic with a cautious return to in-person events and interaction.
Sally Casazza, who serves as the chairperson for the SF Firefighters’ Toy Program, has facilitated its year-round donations and grants programs for 21 years.
Though coordinating donations for 31,000 families “is quite a lot,” she said, “no one is turned away.” Casazza explained that, to achieve an impact as far-reaching as possible, every business that requests a toy donation barrel receives one. More than 1,300 barrels are distributed throughout San Francisco. The characteristic red barrels will also appear with nonprofits supporting the annual drive.
As the toys pour in from donors, the Toy Program will organize socially distanced drive-by appointments beginning at 8:30 a.m. Volunteers aid in the delivery, along with firefighters visiting from a different station each day.
“We have created a tradition where we have people who come back and donate after receiving toys when they were kids,” events coordinator Jill Peeler said.
Peeler, who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, was raised by her single mother, and her family faced challenges financially. Through her childhood experiences, she quickly learned the importance of giving to those in need. When her mother became involved with the Firefighters’ Toy Program, she immediately connected with its mission to provide the warmth of joy to those who would struggle to pay rent or afford any holiday gifts. In the toy program, “you create this family that is just a really magical place to be,” she said.
Peeler shared that watching the growth of the Toy Program makes her even more proud to do her work. Today, gift-giving has branched out to offer many programs in the effort to connect with low-income and disadvantaged communities. While its holiday toy drive brings the spirit of giving to San Francisco, the toy program expands even beyond the scope of the holiday season.
Peeler noticed that many dolls donated didn’t reflect the true diversity of San Francisco. That is when the ethnic doll drives began in 2012. Through this effort, dolls representing a wide range of cultural and racial identities were sourced or made. The ethnic doll drives have made it possible for “every child to have a doll that looks like them,” Peeler said.
The “bike day” presents another impactful program, providing hundreds of children with bikes — a popular gift in December and year-round. The donation of bikes, which can have steep prices, calls back to the beginnings of the Firefighters’ Toy Program that Peeler described as “firefighters fixing a few broken bikes and giving them to underserved families on Christmas Eve.”
For Casazza, small and heartfelt moments characterize the experience of working with the toy program. Once she noticed that a brother from a set of twins would always stumble while walking around. Asking his teacher, Casazza learned that the brothers shared just one pair of dress shoes, so only one could have the “good shoes” at a time to wear to school.
Making a game out of tracing the young twin’s foot, Casazza returned an hour later to present him with a brand-new pair of shoes. The toy program director said that the ability to change a child’s day — even through a small action — made her feel really good.
“I know it sounds small and crazy, but it tugged at my heartstrings,” she said.
According to the Toy Program directors, the toy drive during the holidays represents an opportunity for greater connection among those in need of uplifted spirits and joy.
“Let’s make sure that no child goes without a holiday toy gift this season,” Casazza said. The Toy Program Chairperson emphasized the focus on building a community with disadvantaged families, especially when facing the challenges of the pandemic.
“Children come first in our lives — they’re our future,” Peeler added about the ultimate message of the Toy Program and the Holiday Toy Drive. “It is an honor and a privilege to make a difference in a child’s life.”
For more information about the San Francisco Firefighters’ Toy Program, go to sffirefighterstoys.org.