“I see Santa,” whispers seven-year-old Katia, excitedly, as she waits for her mother to dress her younger brother Jeremias.
As soon as little Jeremias is ready, the two siblings sprint out the door of the shelter they are living in and towards Santa, who has toys ready for both of them.
The 20th annual Auxiliary Toy Drive delivered gifts to Katia, Jermias and 600 other children, thanks to the efforts of Auxiliary officers from 41, 42, 43 and 33 Divisions on Dec. 13. Over December, they will distribute toys to 3,000 children, valued at around $150,000.
The toy drive was started by then-Auxiliary member Carrie McCarthy and Auxiliary Superintendent Frank Fernandes in 1994. McCarthy, who has since retired but volunteered at the event, recalls watching the news one evening, twenty years ago, about kids living in shelters who weren’t going to have a proper Christmas.
“It really bothered me that there would be no Christmas for the kids, no home and no job (for their parents),” said McCarthy. She had been an Auxiliary officer for two years by then and thought, perhaps, the TPS would be able to help them out.
She asked then-Staff Sergeant Gary Ellis, who said she could use 43 Division’s substation to store the toys. With only three weeks till Christmas, McCarthy, Fernandes and dozens of Auxiliaries began collecting toys and, by the time Christmas arrived, they had an old jail cell filled top to bottom. That first year they handed out 700 toys to children.
“(It) was absolutely amazing how it grew,” said McCarthy.
This year, more than 3,000 children will have a happier Christmas because of the toy drive McCarthy thought to start. In recognition of her dedication, Superintendent Sam Fernandes presented her with an award on the 20th anniversary of the drive.
For McCarthy, who joined in this year’s delivery since retiring, the best part of the day was the memories of the previous drives coming back. After delivering toys and getting ready to leave from a location at this year’s drive, McCarthy saw a young boy unpack the skateboard he had just received and then try it out on the slushy, water-logged parking lot. “Seeing him figuring out how to stand on the skateboard… takes you way back” of the joy a simple toy can bring.
“This is a tremendous event organized by auxiliaries, volunteering their time and efforts towards making Christmas for children in the community who may not otherwise hope to get a gift this year,” said Inspector David Vickers.
Auxiliary Inspector Tom Manley wishes he could say the drive is cancelled because there is no need for it, that all children will have a Christmas present, “but the need gets bigger and bigger every year.”
In fact, Manley said the requests for toys have gotten to the point where the drive is almost year-long in terms of collecting toys. In November and December, the toys are sorted by police officers, Auxiliaries and other Service volunteers.
And as many volunteers echoed throughout the day, it was the look on the children’s faces when they saw Santa and received a present that made their day.
One mother was moved to tears after seeing her two-year old run in excitement towards Santa and hug him. “This is so amazing, it’s Christmas time and it’s perfect… the look on his face…” said the mother wiping tears from her face as she picked up her toddler and thanked the Auxiliary officers.
Along with Santa, there were two young helpers who were around to distribute candy canes to the children – 11-year-olds Ella Craig and Olivia Eras. The two girls had helped collect toys for the drive last year. This year, they turned up with an even bigger donation.
Initially the two had used their own money to buy toys for the drive, Olivia, with her money earned from dog-walking, and Ella through babysitting. But, this year, the girls wanted to have an even bigger impact and got their entire school involved. The two sixth-graders spoke to their principal at Maurice Cody Public School and had a toy donation box put in every classroom. By the time they dropped off their donations, they had collected more than 800 toys and over $600 worth of gift cards.
“We wanted to give kids who don’t have anything, something,” said Ella. Olivia, while echoing Ella’s sentiments, added the first year of toy deliveries was a shock for her, going into shelters and realizing the circumstances other children live in.
“People living not so far away having to go through that and not have a nice holiday,” was one reason Olivia said she took part in the drive again this year.
While the differences in living conditions shocked, but also motivated, the two young girls to help out, for Constable Mark Gray, it was an encounter with a mother and son during the toy drive that reminds him to help others out through the drive every year.
“One year I was loading stuff and a mother walked up with her son and donated toys, the next year I saw the same mother and son in a shelter… you never know what can happen in life,” said Gray.
“It started out being about the kids but soon turned into something for the community… the interaction between the kids and cops, between families and seniors… watching all of it is amazing,” said McCarthy, on a small endeavour she and Fernandes started that now makes thousands of children a little happier come Christmas time.