EFR teams with Santa to deliver a Christmas for families in need

December 20, 2011

By Christopher Huber

Daniel Martinez-Otto, of Sammamish, poses with volunteer firefighters Michele Julum (left) and Emily Harig, and Frosty the Snowman (Discovery Elementary School Principal Tera Coyle) after giving a toy to Hopelink at Discovery on Dec. 16.By Christopher Huber

What’s not to love about climbing onto a fire truck and seeing your principal dressed up as Frosty the Snowman?

Hundreds of Discovery Elementary School students and their families literally filled Eastside Fire & Rescue’s traveling reindeer fire truck to capacity with toys Dec. 16. A steady stream of children poured out of the school onto the back playground for more than three hours on the last day before winter break, as they handed off toys for fellow youths they don’t know.

“I’ve never filled up the engine ‘til today,” said Emily Harig, a volunteer firefighter with EFR.

Harig and fellow volunteer firefighter Michele Julum estimated that the students donated 500 items, including Candy Land, Bop-It and other types of toys. The one-day effort was part of a massive, two-week food and toy drive to benefit Hopelink and the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank.

When it was all said and done, Discovery families donated 2,874 pounds of food and hygiene necessities from Dec. 12-16, including 305 pounds of pasta and rice, 477 pounds of peanut butter and jelly, 811 pounds of flour and sugar, 625 pounds of oils and sauces and 656 pounds of diapers and toiletries, Principal Tera Coyle said. In addition, fourth-graders spent much of their last day of school making uplifting cards for cancer patients at Seattle Children’s. She was excited about the outpouring of generosity from the Sammamish students and families.

“We have an incredible community that has more than a lot of others and is willing to give back to the community that is less fortunate,” Coyle said.

Harig and Julum delivered the load of toys to the Carnation Hopelink facility, where organizers would arrange them in a store-like setting for needy families to come “shop” for gifts to give their children. The firefighters had to rush because the reindeer fire engine had to be back in Sammamish that afternoon for another community event, they said.

The truck has become somewhat of an institution during the holidays in the area. EFR began running the truck, outfitted with a wreath and a sleigh-toting Rudolph, in 1992, said Josie Williams, the agency’s communications officer. Off-duty firefighters volunteered to drive it around town or use it to collect food or toys in various neighborhoods.

“It started as something we thought would be kind of nice to have, just to drive through the communities,” Williams said. “It really was just a thank you to the community.”

But since then, its popularity has risen significantly. Residents in numerous cities began requesting the reindeer truck for their food and toy collections.

Nowadays, the truck shows up to almost an event a day from Nov. 25 to Dec. 31, Williams said. At events like the Sammamish Christmas tree and menorah lighting ceremony, families posed for photos in the wooden sleigh atop the engine’s roof. The fire agency has partnered with numerous schools, including Discovery and Creekside elementary schools, and community organizations to benefit primarily the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank and Hopelink. In 2010, Williams said, EFR toy collections helped 169 families through Hopelink. And as of Dec. 15, the agency had helped collect and deliver 15,000 pounds of food and $1,100 to the food bank.

And for the firefighters, it’s all off the clock.

“This is all on a volunteer basis that we’re doing this,” Williams said.

Kris Betker, of Hopelink, stressed the impact efforts like the Discovery and EFR toy and food drives have on low-income families in the area — especially as donations are a bit down from last year.

“What the kids and firefighters are doing is incredibly important to us,” Betker said. “Gifts are just something the families can’t afford. For the kids to step up and help each other is just so inspiring. It’s especially heartwarming to us. It’s one of my favorite times of year.”

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