Standing in front of the checkout line at Target-Memorial City with two filled shopping carts, Paul Box leans against the register back for a breather. He and his merry band of volunteers were at the store for hours buying up toys for the Houston Fire Department’s Annual Operation Stocking Stuffer Toy Drive.
Everywhere shoppers looked, men and women wearing blue HFD uniforms were in the aisles, searching for the perfect gift for a child in need.
Staying motivated to help others during Christmas isn’t hard at all, he said. “It’s easy because I know when it is over, there will be thousands of happy children on Christmas day who might otherwise not have anything under the tree. Staying motivated is not an issue for me or members of the team,” he said.
Operation Stocking Stuffer is one of the largest outreach programs of its kind. Started more than 30 years ago, this year’s toy drive is seeking to provide gifts and toys for more than 30,000 kids and families in Houston.
This season’s drive also comes with a twist: volunteers spent the first day collecting toys and gifts for a single mother of three who lost their home to an early morning fire in the city’s Second Ward. Andrea Rodriguez was returning home from work on Nov. 13 when she saw the flames at her four-unit duplex in the 100 block of Everton Street.
She was able to get her children, her mother and neighbors out of the burning building.
“There is nothing that can replace a home or the memories it holds, but her heroism cannot not be ignored,” Box said. “She was able to alert a great many people that morning and who knows how many lives she may have saved. We are doing this as a thank you for what she did to assist those residents to them out of harm’s way. Not everyone would have the moxie to do that.”
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena presented Rodriguez and her children with their gifts at the pickup site at Dick Graves Park prior to the kickoff. Each child received their bag of toys, along with shiny new bicycles.
“This is an opportunity to give little bit back to the Rodriguez family and hopefully bring a little bit of cheer to them,” Pena said at the start of Saturday’s program. “This is who firefighters are, and this is who this community is.”
For Rodriguez, the gifts were an example of the generosity of Houston residents and allowed her to take pause of what was important.
“I’m so glad that I have my kids with me,” she said. “If I hadn’t been there on time, I don’t know what would have happened and things would have been worse. But I got there and was able to get everyone out. I’m so happy that I have my kids with me and my mom. That’s the main part… we lost everything, but I got my kids and my mother.”
Volunteers from corporate sponsor Shell Oil were also at Target Memorial City, sporting their bright yellow T-shirts with the Shell logo on it and pushing along shopping carts filled with toys that would make a kid’s Christmas a happy one.
Karen Labat, Shell Oil Company diversity outreach advisor and program manager for Operation Stocking Stuffer, said they were here to help support the Houston Fire Department.
“While this program started with them many years ago, we saw the need to come in as corporate sponsors and help support the effort that serves more than 10,000 families, more than 25,000 kids every year, and millions of toys that we provide to Houston area kids,” she said.
Operation Stocking provided gifts for more than 30,000 children in 2021. Box said each child receives up to three gifts. “We do the best we can with what is donated and try to reach as many children as possible,” he said. “Everything donated to Operation Stocking Stuffer goes right back into the program to help families in the greater Houston area.”
Box, a communications specialist supervisor for HFD, said the department spent up to $30K during their first shopping trip. “We collected more than $200,000 and shopped at Target and on-line,” he said. “We will purchase games, sports items, arts and crafts kits all types of items that can be enjoyed by the whole family.”
And the outreach program continued even during the height of the COVID pandemic. Box said before Covid forced the program to conduct a drive-through event, we had the families line up and walk up to receive their bags.
“Physically handing the bags to the children and seeing their eyes light up with anticipation is something never to be forgotten. And when they would get a new bike, that was just the icing on the cake,” he said. “You really have to be there to see it. Words cannot paint an accurate picture.”
More importantly, Box encourages residents to put themselves in the place of the people they are helping. “Imagine having to choose between gifts for your kids or just the necessities of life. Or driving to an event like ours not knowing if your car will make it” he said.
“Imagine not having anything. Now imagine a random act of kindness to help your family get through the holiday. Gifts under the tree … food on the table. A community coming together to take care of those less fortunate. For years, the citizens of Houston have been at the forefront of charitable giving, and they will continue to lead the way.”