As the parking lot at South Coast Plaza filled with the cars of holiday gift buyers on the last full shopping weekend before Christmas, holiday gift giving was in full swing on the other side of Sunflower Avenue at the 30th annual Spark of Love Stuff-A-Bus toy drive.
Once again, the Santa Ana Police Department was at the center of it all. Commander Jose Gonzalez and other officers arrived at 3:30 a.m. for the popular event, as they have done for more than a decade.
As usual, Santa Ana’s sleigh came in the form of the department’s Bearcat SWAT vehicle filled floor to roof with unwrapped toys as part of the effort to fill eight to 10 OCTA buses with gifts.
“It is always a pleasure for me,” Gonzalez said. “This is what Santa Ana is all about.”
Officers opened the back doors of the Bearcat, revealing an explosion of color with sports equipment, dolls, musical trains, make-up kits, games and toys galore.
“These are all from the officers,” Gonzalez said.
Most of the Santa Ana Police Department donations were courtesy of the department’s inaugural 5-kilometer 31 for 31 Fun Run for holiday giving, which was created two years ago by Chief David Valentin to kick off the giving season.
In addition to police and public safety officials, the event featured broadcasters and celebrities from local television, cheerleaders, and the Anaheim Ducks mascot Wild Wing, as well as characters from Star Wars and passersby dropping off gifts.
Teresa Samaniego, Vice President of Diversity & Community Relations for KABC, said the goal of this year’s toy campaign is to deliver more than $500,000 in toys. The toy drive works with a wide array of school districts and nonprofits that help local families in need, people experiencing homelessness, victims of domestic violence, and foster children.
“The need is great and any toy counts,” she said.
Among the local groups in attendance was the Touch and Go Soccer Academy of Tustin, which brought about 10 kids with gifts.
“We have a lot of opportunities, so we wanted to share,” said Academy student Addyson Pedroza, 10.
“I just wanted other kids to get toys they couldn’t have,” added London Sue-Kam-Ling, 9.
As the group assembled for a TV spot, Academy Director Sarah Devine urged the kids, “Act as if you just won state.”
Various toy makers also sent representatives. One was Anne-Marie of Basic Fun, who arrived with a vibrant collection of more than 100 pink Care Bears.
Although the drive is in its 30th year, the location adjacent to the mall was its third in three years. In previous years the Orange County version of the event was held in Anaheim at the Honda Center, and last year was held at Santa Ana College.
Stuff-A-Bus events are part of the annual Spark of Love Campaign, billed as the largest community toy drive in the country. Over the years, organizers say the Spark of Love toy drive has successfully collected and distributed nearly 9 million toys.
This year, in addition to Santa Ana, buses collected gifts in Camarillo and Cerritos.
Celebrities and newscasters from ABC-7 broadcast segments from the event. In addition to the network, Subaru, Toys for Tots, and firefighters sponsor the local events.
Gonzalez said when he became involved with the toy drive, mounted troops from Santa Ana and other agencies would show up with the riders carrying red sacks laden with toys.
Although the Stuff-A-Bus collections have concluded, donations to Spark of Love can still be made through December 24 by:
- Dropping off new unwrapped toys or sports equipment at local fire stations or Subaru retailers. Subject to change due to public health protocol.
- Texting “SPARK” to 24365.
- Donating online at https://supportlafd.kindful.com/ via credit card, or at ABC-7. All proceeds go toward buying toys or sports equipment for children.
- By mail: Send checks to LAFD Foundation, Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center, 1700 Stadium Way #100, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Make checks out to LAFD FOUNDATION, and write SPARK OF LOVE in the memo line.
- Spark of Love-inspired t-shirts are available, with 100 percent of proceeds supporting the 30th annual toy drive, at com/shop.