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By Reece Alvarez on December 12, 2013
For the second year in a row, the Vista, South Salem and Goldens Bridge volunteer fire departments have organized their annual Toys for Tots drive to provide gifts during the holiday season for underprivileged children throughout Westchester County.
“It has worked out really well,” said Mike Peck, a lieutenant and training officer with the Vista Fire Department. “We were shocked at the amount of toys we got last year and we get more and more every year. Over the last few years, Toys for Tots has been used more and more by families in Westchester and in Lewisboro. The whole idea behind our Toys for Tots drive is to ‘lend Santa an extra hand’ this holiday season.”
Last year the drive collected more than 400 toys, which the group hopes to surpass this year. The toy drive will be on Saturday, Dec. 14, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. at each of the three firehouses. Toys must be new and unwrapped.
“As a young child I always had the option to get toys,” Mr. Peck said. “I was very fortunate. There are people in the area who are fortunate and people in the area who aren’t as fortunate as us, and that’s my big thing.”
The Goldens Bridge firehouse is located at 254 Waccabuc Road, South Salem firehouse at 1190 Route 35, and Vista firehouse at 377 Smith Ridge Road.
A gift for every child
Last year the Westchester County Toys for Tots drive gathered more than 18,000 gifts that were distributed to more than 13,000 individuals, according to Westchester campaign coordinator Lu Caldara.
Mr. Caldara is a veteran of the U.S. Marines and said he has been volunteering with Toys for Tots since the 1960s. “Giving makes me feel good,” he said. “It’s a feeling you can’t buy.”
The program is officially sponsored and supported by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, but is made possible through partnerships with municipal agencies to collect, store and distribute toys. It also takes the dedication of individuals such as Mr. Caldara and his handful of volunteers, who freely give their time and energy, as well as local officials like Vista Fire Commissioner Adam Ochs, whom Mr. Caldara noted is a driving force behind the Vista toy drive.
The gifts are religiously unaffiliated and intended for underprivileged children up to 18 years old, but Mr. Caldara said there are needs for specific gifts, such as the particularly difficult to shop for age and gender of teenage girls, as well as infants.
Specific recommendations for gifts include clothing for all seasons, for all ages and genders, as well as sporting equipment and dolls of varying ethnicities.
The gift of giving
While Mr. Peck has seen an increase in the number of toys, Mr. Caldara and his volunteers have observed a decrease in collections, as well as examples of holiday cheer.
The toy drive has not gone unaffected by the financial turmoil of the last five years, with previous county collections raising well over 20,000 gifts, Mr. Caldara said. There have also been instances where no gifts, or junk disguised as gifts, are received, he said.
“Unless they have gone through it — a holiday without something — they can’t appreciate the giving, to see a child get something that is theirs,” he said. “It appears that the lower-income people give more than the upper-income people.”
Mr. Caldara recalled experiences where a drop box in Katonah went the holiday season barren and where collection locations elsewhere in the county had received secondhand wrapped items that resembled garbage more than a children’s toy. This is largely the prompt behind the requirement that gifts be new and unwrapped, he said.
“When I was a kid 100 years ago, I went to church and I got a book,” he said, recalling his childhood during the Great Depression. “It was the most precious thing I had. It meant so much, and it wasn’t the cost, it was the value. For many younger ones, even for the teens, a stuffed animal — just to hold on to it and say it’s theirs — means everything.”