By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Atmore firefighters — aided by costumed characters from movies, comic books and video games — collected more than 600 toys to help make Christmas brighter for local children, as well as the children of Florida families still trying to recover from a devastating hurricane.
Atmore Fire Department Capt. Zack Stewart said this year’s toy drive was expanded and divided into two separate projects. The first was designed to help restore a semblance of normality to the lives of Hurricane Michael victims in the Florida Panhandle; the second was to provide toys and games to local children.
Stewart said the first phase of the project was completed December 5, when he, Head Capt. Daniel Love and Firefighter Dee Guy traveled to Panama City to deliver a significant load of playthings.
“We didn’t partner with a church down there because a lot of the churches that have been feeding people still have holes in their roofs from Hurricane Michael, and it was time for them to start spending some time taking care of themselves,” the fire captain said.
Instead, AFD personnel hooked up with Skip Bondur, who for the past six years has held a toy drive for children in Bay County, Fla. Bondur’s Fill the Bus campaign aims to generate donations of at least 10,000 toys, as well as 1,000 pairs of shoes and 4,000 pounds of canned and other non-perishable food items.
“He does this every year,” Stewart said. “For 14 days he lives on top of his bus while donations are loaded inside. He has volunteers who come and help move the toys and things to a semi-trailer. He’s affiliated with the Toys for Tots program down there, so we feel like the toys will go to who they were intended for.”
The initial phase of the AFD Toy Drive resulted in the collection of 291 toys that firefighters estimated were worth “around $2,400.” And, while that part of the local effort was a big success, the second phase was even more successful.
“Our second toy drive, the one for local kids, wound up with more than 300 toys, and we estimated that they have a total value of somewhere around $3,500, and it was rainy all day that day,” Stewart said. “Both drives went real well.”
And, he explained, an unexpected late donation allowed local firefighters to “spread the wealth” and show their appreciation to CausePlay Gulf Coast, the group that provided the costumed characters — including Superman, Batman, Black Widow and others — who twice traveled to Atmore at their own expense to help with the two-part toy-collection effort.
That “re-gifting” came about when LA Bikers, which conducted its 18th annual Toyz for Kidz program on December 8, had a small surplus of toys and gave the extras to AFD.
“Each year we give the toys we collect to Miss Betty (Cox, founder of Change of Mind Ministry) for her Christmas program,” Stewart said. “This year the LA Bikers group gave us two big bags of toys that they had left over. We were going to include those with the others, but we decided to give them to CausePlay, for a toy drive they’re doing in Mobile to benefit USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital, since they did so much for us.”