You may have seen them out and about — uniformed men and women filling shopping carts with an assortment of toys or sorting through the many boxes of gifts that have been donated from residents in the community.
They may look like Houston firefighters, but they’re moonlighting as Santa’s elves.
The Houston Fire Department set a goal to provide gifts and toys for 7,000 area families. This year, the department kicked off its annual Operation Stocking Stuffer toy giveaway for area children, working alongside community and corporate sponsors to collect and distribute toys and gifts to families in need.
The toy drive started Nov. 5 and wrapped up in the middle of this month.
“We are always striving to do more for the city of Houston. Currently our goal is to provide toys for 7,000 families. We would love to exceed that, but currently that is our goal,” HFD Public Information Officer Martee Boose said.
The department partnered with their title sponsor, Shell, along with new sponsors Target, the Houston Dynamo, Amegy Bank, and others to conduct this year’s drive.
“PODS of Houston was also one of our committed partners, allowing us the ability to safely store and distribute the toys on giveaway day,” Boose said.
HFD Chief Sam Peña said the department was excited to announce the annual drive, noting the importance of the sponsors in their campaign to ensure every child receives a gift for Christmas
“Our goal is to bring holiday joy to thousands of families who otherwise might not be able to purchase toys this holiday season,” he said in a news release.
Boose said the campaign picked up steam Dec. 9 when firefighters and volunteers began sorting and packaging of all the donations they received. Because of COVID-19, the department conducted the toy drive using a drive through format to maintain social distancing.
“We ensured our sorting facility had adequate space for social distancing and also allowed volunteers the option to sort in the morning group or in the afternoon group to minimize the amount of people at the sorting facility at one time,” she said.
Volunteers’ temperatures were taken and were required to wear Personal Protective Equipment, Boose said. Social distancing protocols were put in place and hand sanitizer was available. Families who received toys were required to wear masks during the giveaway and will be instructed to practice social distancing.
Being part of an effort like this has a special meaning for Boose, a five-year veteran of the department.
“Last year I was newly promoted from firefighter to public information officer, so I guess you could say the promotion promoted my involvement,” she said.
She said she was unable to interact with families last year due to COVID, but instead she waved at the children seated in their families’ car backseats.
“That warmed my heart. Seeing their little faces light up with curiosity as we placed their gift bag in the trunk of their card was so rewarding,” Boose said.
It’s those moments that help remind her of the purpose of the campaign.
“This is the biggest event HFD hosts every year. Everyone with the city loves getting involved for such a joyous cause. We have everyone from receptionists to firefighters, all the way up to Chief Peña himself, who handpicks these toys on several shopping trips for these children,” Boose said.
HFD simplified the types of gifts this year to keep social contact to a minimum during the sorting and distribution process. With families staying home more now, Boose said tech devices can offer endless possibilities to keep kids of any age entertained.
“We are looking for gender/age neutral tech devices like tablets, wireless headphones and speakers and other such items,” she said. “Tablets can be downloaded with apps, movies and games for children of all ages and can be easily sanitized, sorted and bagged.
Boose also said no donation was too small.
“COVID has presented many families with new financial challenges, so the need is greater than ever this year,” she said.
Get involved. Visit osstoydrive.com to find out how.