Firefighters hand out gifts at the Spark of Love toy driveWhat started as one Los Angeles Fire Department chief gathering a few toys in the trunk of his car and giving them to children who would not otherwise have gotten a gift during Christmas has grown into a year-round endeavor that sees approximately 120,000 toys distributed to needy kids every holiday season.

The idea for what now is known as Spark of Love had humble beginnings 47 years ago. Chief Rey Rojo saw kids in the area near his Downtown L.A. firehouse who had nothing waiting for them under the tree come Christmas morning. Chief Rojo began asking those who attended holiday parties to bring an unwrapped gift. Eventually, people began to come by the fire station to drop off toys.

Santa Claus ride the FS 88 engine at the Spark of Love toy drive

Jaime Moore, Assistant Chief with LAFD, said the folks who were running the toy drive wanted to go beyond word of mouth. Thirty years ago, they approached all of the Los Angeles-area television stations seeking a partner. ABC7 stepped up immediately as the exclusive partner, and coined the name “Spark of Love.” Jaime, who has overseen the program for last 13 years, said the increased exposure took the toy drive to the next level.

“Mike Marquez is the guy who does everything – he is as close to Santa Claus as one can get,” Jaime said with a laugh. “He actually was a recipient many years ago. When he was a child, the fire department came to his house and dropped off a toy, and that made a huge impact on his life. He has been running the program for well over 20 years. Edgar Garcia started with the program as an explorer, and now serves as Mike’s right-hand man.”

Creating Christmas Magic is a year-round effort

As the Spark of Love program grew, so did the network needed to make the magic happen. Thanks to the vast reach of ABC7, in addition to drop-off locations at fire houses, toys can be donated at Subaru dealerships and numerous other places.

All toys go to one location: Toy Central.

“It is like the North Pole,” Jaime explained. “We don’t tell anyone where it is for security purposes.”

Once the items are brought to Toy Central, they are identified by gender and age group. Then, they are bagged and taken to fire stations all over the city. Firefighters deliver them to one of many non-profit partners. The non-profit either holds an event or delivers directly to a needy family so it ends up under a tree on Christmas Day.

Volunteers at the Spark of Love toy driveVolunteers and gang members come together in the spirit of giving

“All told, we have collected millions of toys over the years,” Jaime said. “The single-year record is 152,000. The fire department does a lot of work, but we can’t do everything because there is so much to do. We are dependent on volunteers to help us. There are a lot of elves who sort and deliver and do so much. Many people in the community have made it part of their celebration of the holidays.”

Added Mike: “There are ladies who sort and bag and identify the toys, and numerous cadets who serve as drivers. We even have a retired priest named Father Chris who works tirelessly gathering toys from drop-off points.”

Kids receiving gifts at the Spark of Love toy driveSome of the people who help have gang affiliations. However, Mike noted, when they come in to be part of the process, they respect the LAFD’s rules and leave all that aside.

“They work hand-in-hand to help their neighborhoods,” Mike said admiringly.

So how does the LAFD know where to take the toys, exactly? Jaime said in most cases, a family in need goes to one of Spark of Love’s many non-profit partners, including churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, homeless shelters and more – “a whole litany of groups” – fill out an application stating how many boys and girls there are, and their ages.

All religions and traditions

The main part of the program runs from the day after Thanksgiving until January 7 to accommodate a number of different religions and traditions. Because of this, many surplus toys are available after Christmas.

Santa Claus at the Spark of Love toy drive

“We work with most of the big toy companies – Mattel, Spaulding, Nike, and more – any that will give us a discount, to buy pallets of toys. Many people would rather give a financial donation rather than go buy a toy, and a number of large companies give financial donations right around Christmas time. The LAFD Foundation helps handle the funds, and right after Christmas we negotiate for overstocked toys. This is a year-round effort. I have learned more about toys than I ever imagined.”

Mike said despite the incredible generosity of all the donors, and the amazing efforts of the many volunteers, Spark of Love still does not get enough toys to meet the demand each year.

“We have 250,000 children in need in any given year,” Mike noted. “Sometimes I have to decide which organizations receive a donation and which do not. Battalion 17 just had a burnout. In this case we ask for a wish list from the children. They have lost everything they ever had. In these cases, we take the donations a step further.”

To donate or receive items or learn more about Spark of Love visit the LAFD website.

By Michael Bartlett