Firefighters, cops deliver thousands of toys to kids


By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac

Christmas came early this year for hundreds of local children, thanks to the efforts of a large group of volunteers involved with the Redwood City/San Mateo County Toy and Book Drive.

In fact, Santa arrived so early on his toy delivery route one night last week on Third Avenue in Redwood City, he experienced a couple of near misses.

On his first stop, Santa (aka Woodside Fire Protection District firefighter/paramedic Hansen Perkins) had to wait for a 9-year-old boy to get home from class. The boy bounded up the steps of his home to receive a bag filled with five wrapped items including a book, a stuffed animal and other toys, and then paused long enough to pose for a picture with Santa next to the family's Christmas tree.

Santa then jumped back on the fire engine with fellow firefighter/paramedics Justin Werle and Michael Lambrechts, and Mr. Lambrechts' wife, Stefanie, to drive down the street to another home.

Next, Santa grabbed a bag filled with gifts for two girls, ages 11 and 6, rang the doorbell and bellowed, "Ho, ho, ho!"

This time the grandmother answered the door, explaining that the girls were at church. Santa handed over the goods, said farewell in Spanish, then took off to visit some apartments on Oakside Avenue, with impromptu stops to hand out candy canes and stocking stuffers to people along the way.

Mr. Perkins had been on the job with the Woodside fire district for less than a week when he was asked to put on the big red suit. He received a little coaching and lots of encouragement from his more seasoned coworkers who, too, have played Santa on toy deliveries in years past.

"Our ambulance services this area quite a bit," Mr. Werle says. "It's our way of giving back, a part of the fire department tradition."

For Battalion Chief Emil Picchi, that tradition goes back 10 years ago to when he started bringing his wife, Danielle, and kids to what's called the wrapping party.

Toys and books are collected in bins placed at various locations around San Mateo County and then stored in a Redwood City warehouse for free, courtesy of Alyn Beals with commercial contractor Beals Martin.

Toys are sorted into piles to match them with recipients, mostly families that have been screened by social workers at the Fair Oaks Community Center, run by Redwood City. Teri Chin, the city's human services manager, estimates that close to 11,000 toys were processed this year for about 700 families.

The toys are taken by the truckload to Red Morton Community Center, where hundreds of volunteers wrap them.

On Dec. 14, volunteers, including Boy Scouts and Sequoia High School Upward Bound students, shared tables, tape and scissors with veterans such as the Picchis, who brought their teenager Michael and his Scottish soccer coach to help wrap.

On the other side of the cavernous room, Capt. Marshall Hird of the Woodside fire district, attended the wrapping party for the first time with his wife, Monica, sons Cooper and Parker, and two neighbors.

Parker admitted liking a football he giftwrapped, but sounded more excited about the possibility of accompanying his father on the toy deliveries.

Capt. Hird, who has done deliveries for four years, likes being a driver. Chief Picchi has a longer track record and feels fine about driving or being Santa. Either way he usually brings his family along and finds the take away is "they get to appreciate what they have."

Sgt. Dan Smith of the Redwood City Police Department has been helping run the program for 18 years. It's a big job to coordinate all the participants from the many agencies involved, including the Redwood City and San Carlos' fire departments, Woodside fire district, and San Mateo County Sheriff's Office. Sgt. Smith acts as a dispatcher, sending the participants out in their official vehicles on three nights.

The officers and firefighters do the deliveries in uniform, but are off-duty, said Sgt. Smith.

"We usually see each other on calls, and in bad situations," Sgt. Smith said. "This allows us to get tighter for a common good. Everyone benefits."

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