By Rick Pfeiffer Niagara Gazette
NIAGARA FALLS — They pound the pavement on the night before Thanksgiving, looking for dollars and change at the city’s bars on the biggest bar night of the year. On Black Friday, they stand in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Niagara Falls Boulevard, hoping folks can donate some of their early morning shopping savings.
Whatever it takes, Falls firefighters seem ready and willing to do it. As long as it goes to the bottom line of the Firefighters Toy Fund.
“It’s an all out blitz, all the way to the telethon (on Saturday),” Falls Firefighter and Toy Fund Chair John Castellani said. “We’ve been real busy this year and the fund raising has been encouraging.”
That’s good news for the fund, because in a tough economy, with high unemployment, the need for the Toy Fund provides has not diminished.
“We are getting inventive in the ways we raise money,” said Fire Captain Mike Burke, the fund treasurer.
It’s a far cry from the days when the Toy Fund centered on firefighters repairing broken toys or simply sending out letters to local businesses looking for financial support when toy repair had to transition to toy purchases.
While the letter campaign to businesses and previous donors is still an August fundraising staple, there’s now a motorcycle run in the summer, a craft show, basket raffles and Chinese auctions, the boot brigade on the streets and in the bars, even a “Disco” party and, of course, the early December telethon.
The new diversified fundraising has brought in more cash, but it’s never enough.
“The sword cuts both ways,” Burke said. “We’re finding more ways to raise funds, but there are more people who need our help. We need to raise funds year round.”
Castellani estimates the more than 80-year-old Toy Fund will distribute gifts to around 1,000 needy children this year. The fund will also help get warm winter clothing for between 350 and 500 kids.
It will also host its annual holiday dinner for seniors living in area nursing homes.
“Every day I answer the (Toy Fund) information line and there are six to nine calls with new (needs) referrals,” Castellani said. “Our numbers (of needy) are the same or going up. One in seven people in this country are on food stamps. People are harder and harder hit and they need help.”
With the telethon looming on Saturday (Cable Channel 21 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.), both Burke and Castellani are hopeful the folks of the Niagara Region will answer the call.
“We’re hoping people will tune in or even come on down (to Niagara Falls High School) and participate in the activities,” Castellani said.
For Burke, a 15-year veteran of the Falls Fire Department, involvement in the Toy Fund is just a part of the job.
“You have that legacy,” he said. “When I started, an older firefighter said to me, ‘Hey rookie, this is what you’re going to get involved in.’ When I was a rookie I had no idea we’d be helping this many people now.”
Burke also says, when it comes to fundraising, he likes to remind people about the bang for a buck they get with the Toy Fund.
“Where else could you find a charity that gives out 95 percent of what it takes in,” Burke said. “We’ve done it for more than 80 years and we can do it for another 80.”
Like Castellani, Burke expects as the fund approaches its early December toy distribution day that “the numbers (of needy kids) will be as high as we’ve ever seen them.” The pair reminds donors they “know how to stretch a dollar.”
“We just have to lay it out for (donors) that the need hasn’t gone away,” Castellani said. “Everywhere you go around here, you see poverty. Everyone I’ve spoken with, they don’t hesitate to donate to the cause.”
Those wishing to make donations can do so by going to the telethon at Niagara Falls High School, 4455 Porter Road, calling into the telethon between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday or by mailing a contribution to P.O. Box 271, Niagara Falls, NY 14304
Contact reporter Rick Pfeiffer at 282-2311, ext. 2252