Welsh and Lemke wanted to purchase toys for the hospitalized kids from the local community, so they began a drive to raise money. Thus, the birth of the North Hudson Firefighters' Toy Drive, which concluded last weekend with visits at four area hospitals, namely Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, St. Mary in Hoboken, and Christ Hospital in Jersey City.
Retired firefighter David Velez, now a North Bergen fire inspector, has been the driving force behind the annual toy drive since 1993.
"The founding fathers, George Welsh and Jim Lemke, started it and I pretty much helped to keep the ball rolling," said Velez, who was forced to officially retire after being seriously injured while saving a youngster from a fire in 1998. "Now, we have a lot of guys who help. We collect the money from the firefighters. All the guys chip in, as well as getting monetary donations from generous people. We then go to the store and buy the toys for the kids."
This year, Velez received substantial help from North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue firefighters Scott Marione and Stefan Vassallo, who got behind the drive wholeheartedly.
The trio of dedicated servants went to Toys R Us in North Bergen, which gave the firefighters a discount on all of the toys, as well as donating some toys themselves.
"Toys R Us has become a big sponsor to the drive," Velez said. "They gave us a good contribution."
Velez said that he also received donations from NJ Transit's Secaucus garage, who have been helping the drive since its inception.
Other contributors include Days' Inn in North Bergen and Penske Trucking in North Bergen, which donated the use of a truck for the day in order to transport the toys to the hospital.
Last Sunday and Monday, a group of firefighters traveled to the local hospitals to present the toys to the youngsters. One firefighter, Joe Rovito of Weehawken, dressed up as Santa Claus. Other firefighters dressed up as popular characters like Winnie the Pooh (Richard Nichols) and Scooby Doo (John Pachon).
"It's incredible to see the expressions on the faces of the children," Velez said. "One little girl, about 8 years old, was so upset. She was certain that because she was in the hospital, she wasn't going to get a chance to see Santa Claus. Well, when Santa walked into her room, she gave everyone a big, bright smile. Just that look alone said it all."
All totaled, the firefighters were able to collect enough funds to purchase more than 250 toys that were distributed throughout the four hospitals.
"I was just ecstatic to be a part of it," Velez said. "The kids in the hospital had to be there. They had no choice. But I think we were able to bring them all a little joy. It was our reward to see their smiles. You can't put a price tag on that."
Velez said that he was proud of the contributions by the firefighters who participated.
"Each year, the toy drive gets bigger and bigger," Velez said. "Since I don't get a chance to see my brothers from the department as much, being the honorary committeeman for this drive brings me closer to them again. It's a great success."
Velez said that this year, the firefighters brought their own families, like their wives and children, to participate in the gift distribution.
"This way, they get a chance to experience the joy like we do," Velez said. "We're able to explain what the toys are for and the children understand it. Then they get to see the reactions, see how happy the sick youngsters get and it makes everyone feel so wonderful. We all feel like we're doing our little deed for the holidays."
Velez said that the drive was so successful this year that they have some toys left over. If anyone feels that there are needy children in the area that would like a new toy for Christmas, they can contact the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue at (201) 601-3542.