Spark of love: Helping Hands At St. Mary (copy)

A volunteer takes a toy from the Long Beach Fire Department's Spark of Love truck at a previous event at Dignity Health St. Mary Medical Center.

Sound the alarms and get into the holiday spirit — it's the annual Toy Patrol and Spark of Love toy drives hosted by Long Beach's Police and Fire departments.

The decades-long tradition has put both departments in a friendly toy collector competition. But with the pandemic looming this year, there's even more reason to give.

“It is a challenge to say the least," Will Nash, LBFD spokesperson, said. "We're doing our best to do what we can, but with restrictions, social distancing and cancelled events, it has been a challenge to meet the same goals as previous years."

In a usual year, there's plenty of time for hosting fundraisers and toy drives. Area businesses will help by hosting toy drives on behalf of the departments, making the toy-collecting effort a community holiday event. 

But adjustments had to made in 2020. Instead of fund-raising events and small business toy drives, the Fire and Police departments asked folks to make donations directly to the stations.

"We are doing a little bit less this year just because the donations are less," Karen Owens, LBPD spokesperson, said. "With so many businesses working remote, there's just less businesses available to help with collection."

While the deadline has passed to drop off toys for the LBPD Toy Patrol drive, the Fire Department is still welcoming unwrapped toys at any fire station.

Both departments are accepting online donations as well. Money raised is used to purchase items for teenagers, as well as everyday items that families might need throughout the year.

All recipients of the toy drives are referred to organizers by the first responders themselves. Most were met on calls throughout the year and were identified as families in need, according to Nash.

"I'm amazed each year just by the generosity of our residents," he said. "We have been able to keep up with previous years, and we can only thank our residents for that."

However, a few things will be different at time of delivery.

Instead of delivering gifts door-to-door, the departments will schedule a socially-distanced pick-up. Families will be alerted of the pick-up time and location, and then show up at the designated hour to pick up their gifts.

Unfortunately, a socially-distanced celebration means that the traditional caravan that usually drives through Long Beach after the drop-offs, ending in Belmont Shore is cancelled.

"We always join together with the Police Department every year to make this toy drive a success," Nash said. "A lot is different this year, but the spirit is still there."

Monetary donations to Long Beach Fire's Spark of Love can be made online at friendsoflbfire.org/spark-of-love. Unwrapped toys can be dropped off at any fire station.

Donations for Long Beach Police's Toy Patrol also can be made on the Long Beach Police Foundation website at lbpolicefoundation.org.

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