Firefighters spend morning distributing toys


The toys that were distributed today were given to people like an Excelsior District grandmother whose gifts were stolen shortly before Christmas. The firefighters' delivery saved Christmas for her five children, Lefty O'Doul's spokesman Lee Houskeeper said.

Some were also distributed at the city jail by a San Francisco police officer who goes there every year and makes sure the children visiting their fathers or mothers in custody receive gifts.

Another bunch of presents were given out with the help of Supervisor-elect London Breed, who helped distribute the toys at the Plaza East apartments in the city's Western Addition neighborhood where she grew up, Houskeeper said.

The toys were collected throughout the month by the San Francisco Firefighters Toy Program, which aims to provide toys to 44,000 children in need every year, according to president of the San Francisco firefighters' union Tom O'Connor.

O'Connor said that Lefty O'Doul's annual Christmas Eve toy drive collects about 5 to 10 percent of the toys they distribute every year.

Lefty O'Doul's managed to accumulate more than 7,000 toys this year, well short of their stated goal of 15,000, but still a challenging pile of toys to sort and distribute.

The toys were gathered over a 20-hour period beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at last call there. New, unwrapped gifts were dropped off by passers-by, the Luxor cab company, which will pick up toys anywhere in the city on Christmas Eve, and U.S. Marines dropping off boxes from their Toys for Tots program.

At least one of the Marines who helped drop off gifts, Brian Alvarez, currently on leave from Afghanistan, also stuck around to help sort the toys throughout the day and into the night.

Alvarez worked his way through the packed Lefty's to bring the gifts in and sort them. With customers three deep at the bar, standing in the food line, and a band blaring through the house, trying to carry boxes and barrels of toys through the crowded bar is "sort of like a ballet," Houskeeper said.

While the exact number of toys collected is difficult to estimate, Houskeeper said that it appears that the toy drive fell short of what it was last year, but made up for it in the quality and generosity of gifts.

"The quality was better" than previous years, he said. "The quantity wasn't as much as we had hoped for, but the quality was incredible."

He said that the presents at the end of the day included chrome bicycles, motorized trucks and about 10 stuffed white unicorns that stood three feet tall.

One reason they fell short this year is a lack of large donations of 500 or more toys that has happened occasionally in the previous 12 years that Lefty's has hosted the drive, from people cleaning out warehouses or garages or toy stores going out of business and giving away the last of their stock.

In case of such a donation, though, Lefty's was prepared with a rented truck, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency offered to help pick up any such donations as well, Houskeeper said.

Today the toys are all gone, Houskeeper said, with possibly only a few stuffed animals still lingering in the back at Lefty's.

Lefty's is already making plans for the next toy drive, and may start making deliveries on Christmas Eve to make distribution more efficient. While the drive fell short of where it had been previous years, Houskeeper said he is always impressed by the annual generosity of San Franciscans.

"Every kid should have a few toys on Christmas if nothing else," he said.

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