Bringing Big Smiles to Small Faces
In 1949, a group of firefighters banded together and decided to help the neighborhood kids. They mended damaged toys, repaired broken bicycles, and brought big smiles to small faces.
A few friends grew to more than 300 volunteers. A handful of toys became 200,000. And a small group of neighborhood kids now number 41,000 children city-wide each year.
A simple act of service became the SF Firefighters’ Toy Program: the city’s largest, and the nation’s oldest, program of its kind.
For the past 20 years, Sally Casazza, Chairperson of the Toy Program, has made it her mission to make sure it runs smoothly.
Sally’s a dog lover. She has three, one Morkie and two that she affectionately calls mutts.
“I love animals,” she tells me. “They’re so innocent. All they want is to eat and be loved.”
I grew up with dogs (all beagles), so I know what she means. We have that in common, being animal lovers. We also share a love of music.
Sally says she’s loved jazz ever since she was old enough to start appreciating what it is. And Motown. She loves Motown.
“I really like Jackie Wilson. And I met him once at the old Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos. I got to hear all about his history and getting into this Motown thing. He was really down to Earth, and I really appreciated him.”
There’s a thread here, a connection. Or at least I think so.
You see, there’s soul in jazz and Motown. There’s heart, passion, and a dedication to an ideal. It’s music that connects people, brings them together, and gets them out of their seats.
Let me tell you about the building that houses all the donated toys, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.
First off, it’s a huge space. And there are toys everywhere. Stacks of books, art supplies, action figures, teddy bears both small and comically large. Rows and rows of shelves stocked with donations. A whole area dedicated to bicycles that volunteers assemble.
There’s something for every kid of any age. Toy Program barrels are stacked everywhere. In some places, they reach the ceiling.
Come Christmas, every one of these barrels will go out into the city, to be filled with gifts for the kids.
There’s heart, passion, a dedication to an ideal. Sally and this program connect people, bring them together, get them out of their seats.
Standing in a room filled with so much love and generosity, it’s hard not to feel something, not to feel moved.
And it’s impossible not to feel a sense of respect, gratitude, and admiration for the program and its Chairperson.
So, I sat down with Sally to learn a little more about this venerated San Francisco Firefighter institution.
Here’s a little bit of our conversation:
How did you get involved with the Toy Program?
I was running a non-profit at AT&T, but I left to work for the firefighter’s union. And that’s when the city was no longer able to provide a firefighter to run the program. So I applied for it, and based on my experience, I was able to get the job, which I’m very, very happy about.
How do you find the families who receive the toys?
You know, we’ve been asked that question before. Oddly enough, they come to us. And so we make a lot of life connections. Maybe we helped them last year, or they could be new people that heard about us from a friend.
So, I learned today that the Toy Program is year-round, and I think it’s something other people might not know.
There’s so many different holidays besides the Christmas or Winter holidays. So we try to do things for Valentine’s Day and Easter too. I think we’re going to be doing a big egg hunt in partnership with the police department over in Treasure Island. Or maybe here in Golden Gate Park for kids that live in Nob Hill. All kids love special occasions. I did when I was a child.
Is there anything in particular the Toy Program needs?
We’re in need of toys for older children. For some reason it’s easier to grab a teddy bear or a doll or something. But for like 11-13, that age for girls and boys is always harder. I think people kind of forget about them.
And we like sports items, because those can be used for boys and girls of any age. And a gift card to give to older girls. So, a good mix of that if any of the members are interested in donating to the Toy Program personally.
I will say, SF Fire Credit Union has always been behind the Toy Program 100% on all of our ventures that we do. Whatever we ask their help with, as much as they’re able to, they do help us. And they get involved. They don’t just send money, they send personnel. People that we develop relationships with.
Any moments from your time at the Toy Program that stick out? I’m sure there are many.
There’s a lot, for sure. But there was a time when we were drawing maps on the playgrounds in some of the schools in San Francisco. We were going a couple times a week. Once to stencil it out, and then going back a week later to paint it.
There was a child that I saw a couple times there. He kept falling down, and I was wondering why. So, I talked to the teacher, and the teacher said that he was part of a set of twins.
One went to the morning class, one went to the afternoon class. They shared a pair of shoes. And the shoes they were sharing were the brother’s size, so the child kept falling down.
So another volunteer and I went to a Payless and bought the correct pair of shoes for that child.
The next time I went back there, I saw both twins. And that little boy wasn’t falling anymore.
It was very simple. It cost like ten dollars. And I’ll never forget it. It really made an impression on me.
The SF Firefighters’ Toy Program started in 1949. Today it is stronger than ever and continues to grow. The impact it has on the children in our community and their families cannot be overstated. And the volunteers who work tirelessly to make it all happen are true heroes.
What my short time with Sally Casazza taught me was this: something as simple as a pair of shoes, as small as a group of friends fixing bikes, can turn into something so much more.
It can turn into something that will leave an impression. Something that some kid will never forget.