Operation Toy Drive comes to Bay Area for first time

Much has been made lately of the gap between military and civilian families in the U.S. — and in the greater Bay Area, the gulf tends to be even bigger, as about 20,000 military families make up less than 1 percent of the population.

However, those families took a rare step out of the shadows Saturday. And boy, were they surprised by all the attention.

“In all my years in the Army, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Scott Laczynski, commander of the Fremont recruitment center.

His children were among those showered with digital Disney books, Barbies and action figures at Operation Toy Drop, one of two holiday toy drives held at Moffett Field. The other event was the annual Cops Care Foundation Christmas Fantasy Flight for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, where the highlight is the arrival of Santa in a helicopter.

Operation Toy Drive started 14 years ago at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Saturday was the first time it was held in the Bay Area — with a twist.

In North Carolina, paratroopers donate gifts to the community. At Moffett Field, anyone affiliated with the military was invited to pick up presents and sit on Santa’s lap. They included members of the active forces, National Guard and reservists.

“In this time of economic distress, families all over the country have been hit hard and are stretched to their limits. This is especially true for the families of servicemen and women in the Bay Area,” said Lt. Ray Ragan, an Army spokesman. “When the national children’s charity Kids Wish Network heard of the overwhelming need, they had to help.”

The nonprofit, based — where else? — in Holiday, Fla., collected $500,000 worth of gifts from toy companies and other benefactors, co-founder Barbara Askin said. The gifts were trucked in for free by Megatrux, a Rancho Cucamonga company that ships the Kids Wish Network donations to hospitals and other sites around the country all year for no charge.

“This is an exciting new program for us,” Megatrux owner Karen Pelle said. “We want to reach out to the men and women who serve our country so selflessly.”

A study released in October by the Pew Research Center is the latest to document the growing gap between military personnel and the general public. Only about one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population has been on active military duty at any given time during the past decade of sustained warfare, the study noted.

More than 80 percent of post-9/11 veterans surveyed in the study said the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families.

Military families often make sacrifices, even if no one in the family is deployed to a war zone.

Staff Sgt. Lester Lardizabal with the Air National Guard said he saw his wife and family in San Jose only about two weekends a month while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton — for eight years.

“I think most families don’t know what military families go through,” said Lardizabal, who brought his wife, Claire; son, Jurrel, and daughter, Charlise, to the toy drive. “We were really surprised they had this. It’s pretty awesome.”

For 7-year-old Gabriel Johnson, the toy drive made it seem like he was celebrating three Christmases.

There’s Christmas Eve, when his mom gives him and his four brothers and sister new pajamas, which they all wear until Christmas dinner. There’s Christmas morning. And then there was Saturday, when he got an armful of gifts, including a toy dragon.

“I was smiling big and wide,” he said.

His mother, Jennifer Johnson, is an aviation resources manager who lives at Moffett Field. She said the toy drive helps make Christmas more bountiful for her five kids. She even received a three-tier bookshelf she’d been eying at Target.

“It’s the best event,” Johnson said. “We’re blown away by the generosity of people.”

Mercury News
San Jose, California

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Kids Wish Network is a charitable organization dedicated to infusing hope, creating happy memories, and improving the quality of life for children having experienced life-altering situations. Kids Wish Network assists children and their families through several key programs.