By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — What was started 80 years ago by a group of Niagara Falls firefighters looking to refurbish discarded toys for needy children at Christmas time has grown into an annual campaign to not only brighten kids' holidays but to help local families and area seniors as well.
Throughout the day today, the Niagara Falls Firefighters Christmas Toy Fund will be holding a telethon and basket auction at Niagara Falls High School. Both events will help raise funds for the Toy Fund's three-pronged approach to improving the quality of life for those in need in the community.
And, this year, Toy Fund Chairman John Castellani said the need is particular acute, overwhelming even.
"We are overwhelmed with our applications," Castellani said. "We literally have hundreds of new applications for toys this year. The need is really great."
The Toy Fund telethon will be held from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. today at the high school, 4455 Porter Road. The telethon will be broadcast on the Our Schools Channel (Channel 21) on Time Warner Cable and will feature a variety of entertainment, including musical acts and dance groups. Telephone numbers will be provided during the broadcast to allow viewers who are interested in supporting the Toy Fund to call in and make donations.
Castellani said the show is one of the main fundraisers of the firefighters' annual drive, noting that the cash donations are used to purchase not only toys for needy kids in the Falls area, but winter coats and clothes for local families as well. In addition, he said, funds raised will be used to cover dining, transportation and other costs associated with another branch of the firefighters' Toy Fund - an annual holiday dinner for senior residents living in area nursing homes and adult care facilities.
Castellani said the telethon, which has been held for three decades now, is the "public embodiment" of the spirit of giving and volunteerism that drives the Toy Fund each year.
"We may be completely unique in that 95 percent of the money we take in goes directly to the services that we provide," Castellani said.
Toy Fund organizers are also hosting a basket auction from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today at the high school, featuring more than 100 gift baskets and items donated by area residents, private companies and organizations. Chinese auction tickets will be available for $5 per sheet. Castellani said tickets for a 50/50 split club will also be available.
Again, he said, the bulk of the funding raised will be used for Toy Fund purposes, including the purchase of toys and clothes for the needy.
"It's the same message this year that we've had for 80 years, which is whatever comes through is used to help poverty in our community," Castellani said. "The way we view it is that the children in our community who are poor are not responsible for it. Charity is a way for us to alleviate the affects of poverty for a little while. The Toy Fund is a way to brighten the holiday a little bit."
Individuals or businesses that are interested in donating to the Toy Fund are encouraged to contact organizers during the telethon at the telephone numbers listed during the event or by attending the basket raffle at the high school.
Donations are also accepted throughout the holiday season by mail at: Niagara Falls Firefighters ChrisToy Fund, P.O. Box 271, Niagara Falls, N.Y. 14304.