For the 10th successive year Atmore Fire Department personnel will collect donated toys to help make Christmas a little brighter for children of local families in need. For the second successive year, they will have help from a cadre of costumed comic book characters.
The annual AFD toy drive will take place from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. (or thereabouts) this Saturday, December 9, at Walmart.
“We say nine to one, but we stay as long as people are still donating toys,” said AFD Capt. Jeremy Blackmon, who is president of Escambia County Alabama Professional Firefighters Association, sponsor of the local program. “Usually it doesn’t start slacking off until 2 or 3, so we’re usually there at least until then. The best thing about it is that all the toys donated go to local kids, unlike some of the other toy programs, where the toys are donated here but are given to kids in some other country or somewhere else away from here.”
City fire department personnel began the toy collection program more than a decade ago, when Kelley’s Ambulance Service not only accepted and verified applications, but also served as the distributor of donations. After one year the distribution and application portions of the program were handled for a couple of years by North Baldwin White Christmas Program, which included Atmore, Nokomis and Perdido in its coverage area.
Those parts of the program are now handled by an Atmore-based Christian ministry, and the benefits from the collection of new, unwrapped toys are enjoyed only by local children.
“About 10 years ago, we discovered that Mrs. Betty Cox had started Change of Mind ministry,” Blackmon recalled. “We began giving the toys to her, and she distributes them here. She knows people at local churches and local schools who let her know of any family that is in need, and it has been great. You couldn’t ask for it to be any better.”
Cox, who is supervisor of emergency dispatchers for the city, started the ministry in 2006. She said the sudden infusion of the items collected by firefighters has allowed the program to grow by leaps and bounds over the past several years.
“Since the firemen started donating the toys they collected to us, they have been a major source of the toys we have been able to give out,” Cox said of the annual AFD effort, which made Christmas brighter for “about 100” local children last year. “They have been a blessing to us every year; they have created a lot of smiling faces.”
The six characters that heeded a request by AFD Lt. Daniel White and traveled from Mobile and Pensacola to help last year were Batman, Black Widow, Captain America, Spider Man, Bat Woman, and The Grinch (of Dr. Suess fame). Most of the group, which was a big hit with locals, are expected to return to Atmore this year, where they will pose for photographs with donors and help attract attention to the project.
Walmart shoppers will be encouraged as they head into the store to buy at least one toy for the local Christmas program. Many of those who don’t have the time to do such shopping, or those who aren’t sure what toys to buy, can drop cash and coins into a boot that is set up at the donation table.
“We empty the boot every 30-45 minutes and take that money inside and buy toys with it,” said Blackmon, who related the early days of the annual holiday project, when Fred’s or Walgreen’s Drug Store would host the firemen. “We used to put a fireman, usually Lt. White, on top of Fred’s and tell folks he couldn’t come down until they filled the trailer with toys. He liked to have frozen a couple of times, but he sucked it up and stayed up there for the cause.”
Firemen reported last year that the drive resulted in “about $2,000 worth” of toys, enough to fill the bed of a 140-square-foot trailer.
Blackmon pointed out that the main reasons behind the toy drive’s success were the cooperation of city officials and the willingness of firemen — association members and non-members — to pitch in for the betterment of the community.
“We want to give credit and thanks to the mayor, the city council and the fire chief for allowing us to do this,” he said. “They’ve been super throughout it all, from allowing us to use the firetrucks to allowing on-duty firemen to help. And the men — the association members and those that are not in the association — have really come together to make this happen.”
Cox said that any person who would like his or her children to be considered as beneficiaries of the toys, or anyone who knows of a family that could use the help, should call her at 251-294-2331 for more details.