Families lined up along the streets and children stood there bearing the cold Chicago winds on Dec. 11, waiting, hoping they could maybe get one glimpse of Santa on his way through the streets of Bridgeport and Canaryville on the city’s South Side. Sirens could be heard off in the distance and children grew more excited. Finally they could see Santa with his white beard, waving and saying “Merry Christmas!” to all who looked on.
Today, however, he substituted his sleigh for a fire truck, and instead of elves, he was aided by firefighters and paramedics. The mission: bring Christmas to children that otherwise wouldn’t have one. This was mission of the 12th Annual Toy Parade put on by Local 2 of the Chicago Firefighters Union.
“We started in 1999 and in our first year we had hopes and expectations of helping 500 children and we exceeded expectations and helped 1,000,” Tim O’Brien, director of public relations for Local 2 said. “We have increased every single year.”
O’Brien has been a firefighter in Chicago for 19 years and came up with the idea; however, he says no one man can do this. According to O’Brien, approximately 4,000 children, from newborns to age 16 will be helped this year.
“The difficult economy has stagnated our growth in the past years but we continue to grow,” he said.
This year the parade included 450 bikes, 600 toys and 200 gift baskets for girls, which included perfumes and shampoos. Around 60 wagons were also collected.
“Our goal was to show the citizens of Chicago how appreciative we are for the jobs we have and to give something back to the community,” O’Brien said. “While firefighters and paramedics have difficult jobs, one of the things we see first hand is poverty. A lot of low-income people are people who need our help the most.”
As the parade passed through Bridgeport it had to stop so firefighters could collect donations from the people. An entire fire truck was loaded with toys, many times forcing the riders to catch items as they began to slipping off the truck.
“The people of Bridgeport are amazing,” O’Brien said as he climbed back abroad the truck. “It’s always the people with the least amount of money that give the most.”
The parade continued along its route until its final destination at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, where it was met by representatives from Catholic Charities, who have partnered with the toy parade.
The toy parade is a part of Catholic Charities’ initiative to bring Christmas to some 21,000 children.
“I am speechless by the generosity of all the firemen and their families,” Anne Bergin, director of board relations for Catholic Charities said. “We are so blessed.”
The generosity of the firemen, paramedics and families for Local 2 doesn’t stop there. They also work with Toys for Troops, especially the 404th infantry brigade and also Housing Opportunities for Women.
“The support of the Chicago Fire Fighter’s Union is absolutely vital to the families we are serving,” Jen Patterson, director of development and communications for Housing Opportunities for Women said. “These gifts are likely to go to children who would not have a christmas.”
Some 150 toys were donated to the shelter, who according to Patterson, support about 1,400 individuals a year.
“The annual Chicago Firefighters and Paramedics Toy Parade is an amazing example of how people of good faith respond generously to the call of an idea as simple as providing Christmas gifts to needy children,” said Monsignor Michael M. Boland, president of Catholic Charities.
The parade could not have been done without all the volunteers who gave their time to help load and unload all the toys. There were some 125 volunteers involved.
“We’re grateful to the men and women of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 who make extraordinary sacrifices for all of us every day that they report for work,” Boland added. “They’re to be commended for their dedication to the communities they serve and for their generosity to the poor whose families are struggling to make ends meet in these challenging times.”