By Katherine Minkiewicz
Amid glasses of eggnog and twinkling holiday lights, Sonoma and Marin County donors brought arm-fulls of toys to the second annual SMART Holiday Express Toy Drive Dec. 9, which according to SMART and Toys for Tots, was an overwhelming success — a happy sight for a time when toys are needed for children now more than ever following the devastating Sonoma Complex Fire.
The specially decorated Holiday Express Train was parked at the Novato San Marin Station earlier this month for the donation event and then later made its way to the Santa Rosa Downtown Station on Fourth Street where people brought all types of toys, from teddy bears to basketballs. According to SMART, in order to meet an increased demand for toys this holiday season and to reach their doubled goal, the light-rail transit service planned to collect two trainloads of toys.
SMART Media Spokesperson Jeanne Mariani-Belding said while there is no exact count on amount of toys received, she did say the event was a big success.
“The toy drive was really successful. It was an overwhelming success and we are really grateful for the community coming out. We saw people donating arm-fulls of toys, people didn’t just bring one toy. We were really touched,” Mariani-Belding said.
The Saturday Dec. 9 event also accepted donations at other toy drop off locations at the Cotati Station, Petaluma Downtown Station and the San Rafael Station in addition to the holiday train drop off areas.
Following the donation event, which also gave participants a chance to visit with Santa, the toys will be donated to SMART’s nonprofit partners; Toys for Tots of Sonoma County, Novato Human Needs Center, Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County and the Novato Youth Center.
Mariani-Belding said it was vital to coordinate with their partners in order to determine what toys were needed the most and how many were needed since demand was so high. “We heard across the board this year that the need (for donations) was greater, they needed toys for younger and older kids. It’s (because) some people lost their homes and their employment and that puts a strain on families, so we wanted to give them the best holidays we could.”
Jim Jones, coordinator for Toys for Tots Sonoma said partnering with SMART for the drive was quite a success and they are expecting to get more toys this year versus last year’s drive. According to Jones, after last year’s toy drive the Sonoma division of Toys for Tots filled two pickup trucks of toys and this year they expect to have to make multiple trips in order to pick up all the toys that were donated during the SMART event.
“We had a lot of people calling about where they can drop off toys… the generosity and giving is overwhelming. I’ve never seen anything like it, the whole community stepped forward,” Jones said.
In addition to the center’s three other distribution sites — Penngrove, Petaluma and Santa Rosa, the division estimates that with receiving enough toys for about 9,000 kids. In terms of families Jones said, “This year we had fire victims and we anticipate an increased number where we’re going to get 12-13,000 serviced with donated toys this year.”
While SMART asked for toy donations for kids of all ages, Jones said it’s usually the older kids, 12-18-years-old who do not get as many toys as the younger age group. “Generally speaking, the older kids always come up shy at toy drive,” Jones explained.
Mariani-Belding said of the toy organization process, “When we get them we communicate with the nonprofits to find out exactly what they need.”
Community Action Partnership of Sonoma, a nationwide nonprofit created after the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, partners with local low-income families to provide aid in creating social and economic stability. According to Iris Leal, one of the toy drive coordinators and an Americorps member, Caps needed toys for all ages from 0-18 and have brought together an amount of 115 toys and gift cards for fire victims.
“We had a lot of families that were really appreciative of it. It’s beautiful that people are coming together and are selfless,” Leal said.