Toronto Fire Fighters Toy Drive

By Mike Strapko, Fire Watch, Winter 2007 Reprinted with permission

Today’s Toronto Fire Fighters Toy Drive likely goes back 150 years, before towns and villages joined expanding municipalities. Back then, fire halls also served as community centres. When locals suffered a fire loss or were having trouble making ends meet, it was often at the fire hall where do-gooders met to initiate ways to help those who were down on their luck.

The fire fighter tradition of helping the needy during the holiday season took a giant leap forward when ‘Operation Christmas Tree’ was born in 1961. Santa greeted 1,200 disadvantaged children in 14 fire stations across the City of Toronto that year. It was a tremendous success, never to be forgotten by the youngsters, and a very rewarding day for fire fighters as well. It was their first venture of this kind on such a large scale.

Subsequently, Operation Christmas Tree grew in size and scope. It became a registered Canadian charity in 1963 by founding members Herb Penfound, Bill Borthwick and John Trotter as part of the Toronto Fire Fighters War Veterans’ Association.

In 1964, Operation Christmas Tree, Inc. was another huge success with more than 3,500 underprivileged children receiving gifts and entertainment in Toronto, York Township, East York and Scarborough. These children enjoyed Christmas parties in 29 different fire stations. Within four years, this grassroots initiative had already brought hope and joy to 12,000 less fortunate children. Operation Christmas Tree continues today, managing the Toronto Fire Fighters’ Toy Drive.

Around 1980, the North York Professional Fire Fighters’ Association was approached by CFTR and McDonald’s to launch the ‘Gift of Christmas’ program. Irving Stone and John Campbell were founding members of this initiative and later Doug (Sarge) Sargent picked up the lead. Sarge held the reins of the Gift of Christmas which became the biggest toy drive and eventually transformed into the ChumCity Christmas Wish.

York Fire Fighters were delivering Toronto Star boxes in the 1950’s. Etobicoke Fire Fighters hosted magic shows and gave gifts to children. Scarborough and East York Fire Fighters delivered gifts to hospitals, which has become an annual tradition with Local 3888, expanding to many hospitals across the City on Christmas Day.

From a personal perspective, while working nights at Fire Station 26 (323) just before Christmas in 1994, my Captain, Dan McMurray, called all district 42 fire stations; 12 (324), 30 (326), 17 (227), and 26 (226) to ask how many toys they had in their food drive barrels. He then called some media, donned his red and white Santa hat and took the Bronto out to collect the toys from our district and deliver them to a couple of emergency shelters. After returning to our station, we watched it on the evening news.

The following holiday season, Dan called me at City Hall explaining that he had $3,000 in wrapped toys from a Local 113 charity haircutting stint, held on the Danforth, that he wanted to deliver to the Hospital for Sick Children. I suggested loading them on HAZ 1 and then I notified the media. Sick Kids accepted the gifts but were already overwhelmed. The next day, I helped a social worker distribute their overflow to many shelters and community centres downtown. It was an eye-opening experience to see the amount of need. Thus, in 1996, the Toronto Fire Fighters’ Toy drive was launched where we collected toys in fire halls.

Family loses everything in blaze, but firefighters save boys’ Christmas.”

On December 23, 1997, Al Harris responded with Air Supply to a High Park home on Grenadier Rd. and tactfully asked Communications to radio Box 12 to respond to the fire, since children lost everything in the blaze. At the time, Marla Friebe, her sons and I were out picking up toys in Box 12 from fire stations and were at a media event on Coxwell Avenue where we were accepting a significant donation from a store. Box 12 was filled with gifts and I told the media that we were responding to a fire to deliver toys. Upon arriving at the fire scene, fire fighters grabbed loads of gifts to give to the children. It made headline news, This incident set the precedent for the toy drive and the Association to help victims after a fire and other tragedies ever since.

When amalgamation came in 1998, the key players from the various holiday season charitable initiatives formed under the umbrella of Operation Christmas Tree with Jeff Penfound taking over from his dad and Sarge still spearheading the toy drive. Each year, the logistics are challenging to secure donated warehouse space and cargo trucks, but that is insignificant when you consider that during the past half-century or more, fire fighters have provided hundreds of thousands of gifts, worth millions of dollars, to children who are underprivileged by no fault of their own.

Sadly, Doug Sargent passed away on August 15, 2015 due to a lengthy illness. The Toronto Fire Fighter's Toy Drive will honour Doug by continuing the legacy he started.