Spark of Love delivers toys to Orange County children in need 

By Lou Ponsi

From corporations gifting hundreds of shiny new bicycles, to a local software firm contributing two or three boxes of toys, to the child donating a single new toy, the mission was the same: To ensure every less fortunate child has a new toy to unwrap on Christmas day.

Anaheim Fire & Rescue Cadet Nicole Nelson helps organize donated toys for a live ABC7 news broadcast during the Spark of Love event at the Honda Center.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

On Friday, Dec. 15, the gift givers converged on the Honda Center parking lot, which was lined with Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), Anaheim Elementary School District, and Anaheim Resort Transportation buses doubling as collection bins for the 25th annual Spark of Love Toy Drive.

Firefighters from various agencies in Orange County gather for the Spark of Love Toy Drive 2017 at the Honda Center. Representing their fire departments in front are from left, City of Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas, OCFA Interim Fire Chief Patrick McIntosh, Laguna Beach Interim Fire Chief Kirk Summers, Fountain Valley Fire Chief Tony Coppolino, Garden Grove Fire Chief Tom Schultz, Anaheim Fire & Rescue Chief Randy Bruegman, and Fullerton/Brea Deputy Fire Chief Adam Loeser.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Sponsored by ABC7, with participation from OCTA, the Honda Center, Toys for Tots, and the Orange County Fire Chief’s Association, including Anaheim Fire & Rescue, the massive Stuff-A-Bus event was the culmination of the Spark of Love toy collection drive that began after Thanksgiving.

“Twenty-five years … It’s a very big deal for all of us,” said ABC7’s Leslie Lopez, who covered the event in Anaheim. “It’s really special to see everybody participating.”

Star Wars Sand People, who normally ride single file, sit on bicycles being donated for the Spark of Love Toy Drive.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The toy collection drive was born of the goodwill that exists between firefighters and those they serve.

Although firefighters usually interact with the public during moments of crisis, the Stuff-A-Bus event allows firefighters to connect with those donating toys and the children receiving them in a different way.

The toy drive provides time for firefighters to connect with residents beyond the emergency call, simply as members of the same community bringing toys to children who otherwise may not receive gifts during the holidays.

Anaheim Fire & Rescue Cadets Daniel Evans, Kevin Smithmatungol and Vanessa Singh, right, help load toys into buses at the Honda Center.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

With this end in mind, 21 buses were stuffed with toys that were delivered to a local warehouse, where they will be sorted and then delivered to needy children via dozens of nonprofit agencies in Orange County.

Stuff-A-Bus toy drives were also held in in Cerritos, where 9.5 buses were filled; and in Canoga Park and Ontario, where they filled 11.5 buses each.

James Hammortree of the City of Orange Fire Department pulls a few stuffed animals to be loaded onto a bus for the Spark of Love Toy Drive.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In addition to the toys collected by firefighters, Anaheim PD and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department were among the law enforcement agencies that dropped off toys their staff donated.

“We get people from all over,” Anaheim Fire & Rescue spokesman Daron Wyatt said. “It is a very unique and varied event. It’s important for us to be here to interact with people in the community to show them that we care. It’s a lot of fun.”

Representing Orange County Fire departments and ABC News from left: City of Orange Fire Chief Jack Thomas, OCFA Interim Fire Chief Patrick McIntosh, Laguna Beach Interim Fire Chief Kirk Summers, ABC7 News Meteorologist Leslie Lopez, Garden Grove Fire Chief Tom Schultz, Fountain Valley Fire Chief Tony Coppolino, Anaheim Fire & Rescue Chief Randy Bruegman, and Fullerton/Brea Deputy Fire Chief Adam Loeser at the Spark of Love Toy Drive.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Barry Lloyd, who works for a software company in Anaheim, was on his way to Downtown Disney for the premiere of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” when he stopped to drop off a few bags filled with toys.

“We’ve been doing it for 15 years,” Lloyd said. “A lot of the employees contribute… I think it’s awesome.”

Firefighters from various agencies including Anaheim Fire & Rescue, Orange County Fire Authority, Garden Grove Fire, Fullerton/Brea Fire, Orange City Fire, Fountain Valley Fire, and Laguna Beach Fire help pack toys into buses.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Ranisa Smith of Anaheim and her 10-year old son, Aiden, contributed one toy for a boy and one for a girl.

“We just wanted to give back to the little boys and girls who are in need,” Aiden said. “I want kids to have a present that they can open on Christmas morning so they can be as happy as all the other kids in the world.”

“We’ve been fortunate to be able to give back and I just want to teach him that it is not always about getting but about giving,” Smith said.

Members of the U.S. Marines and firefighters from Orange County cities take a break to play hockey with a few kids during the Spark of Love event.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Also in attendance was 3rd District Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who said there is a misconception that most Orange County families are wealthy.

“What they don’t understand is that we have a tremendous amount of poverty and we have people that are deprived,” Spitzer said. “It’s just a tremendous outpouring of support and love at a very important time of year for people who are less fortunate. No child should ever be deprived of having toys on the holidays.”

ABC News volunteer Rajaa Hammoud, left, helps Anaheim Fire & Rescue Explorer Isaac Escobar load toys.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Although not everyone may be aware of this side of Orange County, firefighters see that side of the county every day while responding to calls. They see the need that exists, and they know the impact an emergency can have on a family, and how this can be especially tough during the holidays, said Anaheim Fire & Rescue Community Engagement Manager Elsa Covarrubias. That’s why 25 years later, they are as dedicated as ever to the toy collection drive, she said.