Was it a Christmas miracle? In a period of less than three hours Saturday morning, hundreds of West Contra Costa County families in need received a bag of toys, a full holiday dinner to take home and brand new bicycles at the Richmond Police Activities League (RPAL) gymnasium in Richmond.
Although a massive line had formed outside the gym before 8 a.m., a few dozen volunteers played the role of hyper-efficient elves, forming a production line of sorts that ensured every family passing through the facility at 22nd Street and Macdonald Avenue did not leave empty handed.
For those witnessing the Richmond Fire and Police Toy Holiday Program in action for the first time, it was an impressively smooth operation. Of course, in just that moment one cannot fathom the amount of effort, and, at times, uncertainty, that precedes the 33-year-old charity drive, which has grown to serve about 1,500 children and their families this year.
“It took a lot of effort from a lot of people,” said Ben Therriault, organizer and president of the Richmond Police Officers Association.
It certainly didn’t help that, just over a week before the event, program officials announced a shortage in donations. In the nick of time, businesses and community members in West County and beyond stepped up and saved Christmas for local families in need. The Oakland A’s, for example, made a donation and also sent its mascot Stomper to Saturday’s event, according to Therriault.
“Many parts of the community responded, and that’s what allows us to put this together,” he said.
The Richmond Fire and Police Toy Holiday Drive was inspired back in 1989 by now-retired Richmond firefighter Rod Woods, who organized a toy drive. Meanwhile, the Richmond Police Department had been running a food drive. After many years of growing their separate programs, Fire and Police united as one, with the Chevron Fire Department also stepping up and adding its continued support.
On Nov. 2, families were invited to sign up for the program at EM Downer Family YMCA in Richmond. Up until they received their gifts Saturday, volunteers from the fire and police departments, local businesses and the community were on a mad dash to ensure all donations were sorted and ready to go, including assembly of the donated bikes.
“We get great volunteer core teams every year from Chevron, Marriott and YMCA of the East Bay,” Therriault said.
Firefighters volunteer a lot of time toward building the bikes. Volunteer Daud Abdullah, an artist and avid cyclist who helps build the bikes at the fire station, called the volunteer firefighters “the super guys.”
“The firemen are in the middle of [assembling bikes], then they run off and go handle an emergency. And then they come back and put bikes together,” Abdullah said.
Richmond Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard said it’s an opportunity for his department to reach out and form bonds with community members.
“We know there are people out there who will not experience the holidays as other people will,” Sheppard said. “So we want to make certain that everyone in our community has a warm and joyous holiday.”
Richmond police Chief Bisa French had similar sentiments.
“Throughout the year, we run into families at their worst moment,” Chief French said. “We want to see them in a different light, and let them see us in a different light. Being able to give back and provide resources to our community so that everybody can have a great holiday season just means a lot to us.”
Don Lau, a community advocate and retired president of YMCA of the East Bay, has been volunteering for more than two decades, although he’s stopped counting, and says helping the community will never get old.
“Thanks to Rod Woods for starting it all those years ago,” Lau said.