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By Ashley Lin, Adult Spotlight Interviewer and Nonfiction Editor
The San Francisco Firefighters Toy Program is the largest firefighter toy give-away in the United States. Imagine when you went to school one day, there was a fire at your house. All your possessions are gone, including that special teddy bear you’ve had ever since you were a baby. You can’t believe that now you feel like you have nothing. When there are accidents and losses due to fire, firefighters are the people who see firsthand how devastated children are to lose their favorite toy. The SF Firefighters Toy Program works to ensure that each displaced child, no matter how he or she got there, has a toy, especially during the holiday season.
You then realize your backpack and school supplies are all gone, as are your clothes, all burned down with the rest of your home. It’s a new school year, and you can’t believe things are starting out like this. You just wanted to fit in during your first year at middle school, make friends, and hopefully get into the cool kids group. This is also where the SF Firefighter Toy Program steps in. They make sure you have a backpack and all your school supplies. You can’t believe that now, with the help of SF Firefighter Toy Program, you have something again.
SF Firefighter Toy Program doesn’t only help kids who’ve lost their homes due to fire; they help all kids who are in need. Not every person has the same starting point in life, and that point can constantly change for the better or for the worse. The San Francisco Firefighters understand the struggles of local children, work to be their mentors and role models, and give them the tools and encouragement to make their dreams a reality. For over 50 years, local 798 SF firefighters have given local underserved kids small things, such as toys or backpacks, which brightened their days and showed these children that there are others in the community who care about them.
The spark of passion that was lit so long ago by a couple of firefighters fixing up and donating a couple of bicycles for local kids has now grown into a fully-fledged nonprofit 501C3 organization. Distributing over 200,000 toys to more than 40,000 disadvantaged children, SF Firefighter Toy Program continues to leave its legacy on the community. Let’s hear more about this amazing organization from Sally A. Casazza, the SF Firefighter Toy Program Chairperson!
Amazing Kids (AK): How did you get involved with the SF Firefighters Toy Program?
Sally A. Casazza (SC): I am in my 16th year as Chairperson for the SF Firefighters Toy Program. I used to be President of the Golden Gate Chapter of Telephone Pioneers, the largest group of active and retired volunteer employees of AT&T. I took an early retirement and became the Office Manager for the SF Firefighters Union, the group that runs the Firefighters Toy Program. When the position for Chairperson became available, I applied and got the job because of my past experience with nonprofits. This is the best job in the world…to be able to make the difference in the life of a child is so valuable. The firefighters who volunteer on their off-duty time are the kindest and most generous people. They pick up and deliver toys, attend zillions of holiday events, and make the difference in the lives of the 31,000 families we helped in 2016.
AK: What does your job as Chairperson entail?
SC: My job as Chairperson entails purchasing toys which are age- and gender-appropriate, monitoring our two-person staff and hundreds of volunteers. I facilitate the grant-writing and fundraising processes as well as attend special events to get the word out about the Toy Program. I also help track the 600 donation barrels we have at a variety of businesses around the community.
AK: How does the SF Firefighters Toy Program involve firefighters in its mission? Where did this idea come from, and how is it important?
SC: Our SF Firefighters assist with many things, from cooking lunch for the volunteers (we have about 100 volunteers every day during the holiday season) to attending special business networking events and to delivering and picking up barrels of gifts for collection and distribution. These firefighters make up the heart of this program, and they show this community spirit by promoting the Toy Program in parades, parties, and other special events within the SF area.
AK: The SF Firefighters Toy Program is run strictly on toy donations from the public. How do you maximize donations from the public, and what are your outreach efforts?
SC: In order to maximize donations, we have several programs going with major distributors whom we purchase items from that we then distribute to children, be it toys, diapers, PJ’s, or personal items. (If families’ homes are burned down from a fire, we help replace some children’s prized possessions if we have them.) These business partnerships may give us two items for the price of one or deliver free as their part of a donation to us. Many major business in the SF area are friends of the Firefighters Toy Program and allow employees time off work to help distribute toys and stock shelves.
AK: What are the challenges to running one of the oldest and biggest programs of this kind, and what makes everything “worth it”?
SC: While the need for toys is growing and donations are consistent, the need for certain types of toys is sometimes a challenge. Every child receives four toys (which are age- and gender-appropriate), a sports item, arts and crafts, and whatever else is donated. This means that a family of four would have twelve items in their bag. Ethnic dolls and sports items are always in need as well as gift cards for the older children. We serve babies through 13 years of age. What makes doing all of this worth it in the end is the smile or hug from a mom, grandma, or dad who is so happy you were able to help them make a difference for their child, or the joy from the children themselves.
AK: What is your most memorable moment with a child who received a toy? How did it impact who you are as a person today?
SC: We once had an occasion where we were going to a school regularly to assist with Stop, Drop, and Roll and How to Call 911 programs. I noticed that there was a little boy I would see who would run and fall, run and fall. I asked one of the teachers if she noticed him falling. She said yes—he was part of a set of twins, and his brother was in the afternoon class. He was in the morning call, and because they shared a pair of dress shoes for school, I realized that they must have had different sized feet, which was why he was always falling. I knew then I wanted to help him, so I decided to make a game out of it. I got a piece of cardboard and traced his foot, then traced my own, so he knew I was playing a game. That evening, I went to Target and got two pairs of tennis shoes and asked the teacher on my next visit to give them to the mom for both boys. The teacher told me she had wanted to do something similar but did not because she wouldn’t have been able to do it for the whole class. A few weeks later I saw him running and not falling; that made it worth it for me. A small effort. Our goal is to continue to serve the underserved in SF.
AK: How has the SF Firefighters Toy Program grown, expanded, and changed?
SC: Previously the Toy Program did not assist in any way further than providing toys to folks who were burned out of their homes with children. Now, we supply personal items such as shampoo, pajamas, and so on in a suitcase or backpack. I would like to expand my ability to provide even more items, such as diapers, and maybe pet containers as well because pets are so distressed during fire.
AK: What are some goals for the future?
SC: The major goal for the future is to gather a stockpile of items ready to distribute at a moment’s notice. We want to be ahead of the need and not to have to spend time to shop for items when families are in need of support. We would like to have these items ready for all types of children, specifically in regards to age and gender.
AK: What advice would you give to students who also want to make a difference for underserved and displaced students in their communities?
SC: I would ask students to first find out what is their niche—if it seems overwhelming or uncomfortable at first, find out what you need to make it become less that way. Don’t be afraid to try something else if that falls through, and always follow your heart.
AK: Who has been a mentor or confidante to you throughout your life or experience with the SF Firefighters Toy Program? Who or what is your greatest inspiration to serve?
SC: My mentor is Chuck Smith, former President of AT&T for California and Nevada. He is the only person I know who worked himself up from a telephone installer to become President of a giant telecommunications company in California and Nevada. Chuck always made a challenge fun and fascinating. You cannot be inspired to do that from a book. He took risks; that is what our Firefighters do here in SF every day.
Thank you so much, Sally A. Casazza, for sharing your experiences with the SF Firefighters Toy Program with us! It is so inspiring to hear of this charitable program which started from the honorable actions of firefighters completely dedicated to those they help, and I hope our readers will learn from this and be the catalyst for change in their own communities!