LAWRENCEVILLE - For years Gwinnett firefighters have done something to help needy families during the holidays.
Traditionally, station would sponsor families that firefighters knew were going through tough times. This year, they decided to take part in a campaign they feel can help even more people, and are using the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program to put smiles on as many faces as possible this Christmas.
"We see a lot of people in some of their worst situations," said Capt. Steve Cahn. "When we would show up at a house on firetrucks - and to just see the smiles on their faces when you give them toys - it's just phenomenal. There's nothing like it."
Cahn remembered one family in particular, a mother and father of four children, one of whom was autistic. Both parents worked and a grandmother lived with them to watch the children, but much of their take-home pay was eaten up by mounting medical bills. The father's supervisor would give him a ride to and from work. All four children shared a single bedroom in the small apartment. They just didn't have much.
When asked, the grandmother said the kids didn't need toys, they needed clothes. After a little bit of "legwork," Cahn said, firefighters were able to secure brand new bunkbeds, plenty of toys and new clothes. The autistic son opened the only thing he had actually asked for, a new set of Legos, and happily got to work.
"You would have thought he got $10 million," Cahn said. "He opened those things, looked at the box, put it to the side and put all 500 pieces together."
Cahn, a 21-year veteran of the Gwinnett Fire Department and gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves, said he approached Fire Chief Steve Rolader about using Gwinnett's firestations as drop-off sites for Toys for Tots.
"He was very enthusiastic," Cahn said. "There was no hesitation. I asked him about putting boxes out at all of our 28 stations and he was all for it."
The department will collect new, unwrapped toys and monetary donations through Dec. 18. That's when all donations will be shipped to a warehouse in Marietta where toys will be separated, sorted and bagged. They will then be delivered to children by Marines and the Toys for Tots foundation.
After a small media event at Fire station No. 21 Tuesday, Cahn was off - dressed in his Marine Corps Dress Blue uniform - to the Arena at Gwinnett Center to accept donations during a Gladiators game. He said booths will also be set up during games on Dec. 7, 12 and 16. Those donating a toy will receive a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for tickets to select Gladiator games.
Cahn said last year 600,000 toys were collected and distributed among 300,000 children in the metro Atlanta area.
"I'd love to see that record broken this year," he said.
Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said they are excited about the campaign, one Cahn believes will become an annual event.
"We want our citizens to know that they can help local firefighters and Marines make a positive difference in the lives of needy children this Christmas," Rutledge said.
For more information on Toys for Tots, or to find out how you can donate or volunteer, please log on to www.atlantatoysfortots.com.