Decades ago, Lexington firefighters played Santa to dozens of needy kids at Christmas by loading up fire trucks and dropping off gifts at their homes.
These days, the popular Firefighter Toy Program has grown to provide gifts for more than 1,000 children instead of dozens, ending the era when firefighters might roll up in a big red truck and deliver presents personally.
"It's obviously become of the size where we just can't do that anymore," said John Durr, president of the Lexington Fraternal Order of Firefighters, a charity organization founded by firefighters.
Firefighters are often approached by parents or guardians experiencing tough times. Each year, the firefighters set up a "North Pole," a headquarters where donations may be dropped off and gifts can be distributed.
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Hundreds of families who were selected for the program received free gifts from the Firefighter Toy Program's Henry Street headquarters Dec. 15.
"It's really hard to put a number on it, but I know that we impacted directly at least 1,200 kids," Durr said. That number accounts only for families who picked up gifts from the firefighters and not for the leftover gifts, which firefighters donated to other organizations after the Dec. 15 giveaway.
The Firefighter Toy Program donated hundreds of items to the Catholic Action Center's Christmas Store on Midland Avenue, a toy program for needy families to get Christmas gifts.
"We love getting items from the firefighters because we get new things from them," said Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of The Catholic Action Center. "We got enough that it really did make a difference in our inventory. It's that 100 or 200 that we might not have had enough for."
Each family that participates in the Firefighter Toy Program has to apply and be selected, but the application process is meant only to verify that they live in Fayette County and that they have children. Unlike some organizations, firefighters do not request proof of financial burden, putting applicants on the "honor system," Durr said.
They do that to account for people who might have had good jobs until very recently.
"Sometimes we have people come in that have had nice jobs and drive nice cars," he said. "They just lost their jobs and they're about to lose their homes or their cars. It's just hard for them to take money to buy toys with when they're struggling to make a house payment."
More than half the families who applied to receive gifts this year had never applied before, he said.
"These aren't people who we see year after year after year," Durr said. "Probably at least 50 to 60 percent of the people have never needed help before. I guess it's a sign of the times. People are losing their jobs or just having a harder time adjusting than last year."
Durr, 41, spends his time during the holidays organizing the Firefighter Toy Program when he's not operating the city's Rescue 1 truck, a "big toolbox on wheels" that operates out of the fire station at Maxwell and Merino Streets, he said.
He's the one who appears on television news programs asking Lexingtonians for new, unwrapped toys and gifts for children younger than 10. Folks always respond, sometimes in a big way. Big Ass Fans and its employees donated about $21,000 worth of gifts this year. Meijer donated $5,000.
But donations from individuals help, too, Durr said. Leading up to the giveaway this year, volunteers noticed they didn't have enough arts and crafts items, books and games. Durr made a televised plea.
"People really listened. We really saw a change in the type of toys we were receiving," he said. "Somebody might think their one toy doesn't matter or doesn't help, but it really does."