By LOIS KINDLE
For the past eight years, the Sun City Center Emergency Squad has participated annually in Operation Toy Soldier, a nationwide initiative of Veterans Funeral Care. Its affiliates enlist area businesses and civic organizations throughout the country to collect toys for children of both deployed and nondeployed members of the United States military.
The age range for donations is infancy through 17.
The emergency squad initially collected new, unwrapped toys at its annual November awards dinner until the pandemic hit in 2020. When the dinner was cancelled, the squad developed a drop-off toy drive in its place. Thanks to community donations and the continued support of squad members, the event has grown ever since.
This year, the squad is accepting donations for Operation Toy Soldier through Nov. 18. Residents and businesses are invited to participate by purchasing a toy or gift card and then dropping it off at the Sun City Center Emergency Squad or by mailing a gift card with the dollar amount written on it or a check made payable to Operation Toy Soldier to the SCC Emergency Squad, 720 Ray Watson Drive, Sun City Center, FL 33573. There are also collection boxes at the north and south clubhouses at Kings Point.
All donations will be picked up Nov. 19 by Operation Toy Soldier representatives to be delivered to MacDill Air Force Base for distribution in December.
The SCC Emergency Squad collection is spearheaded annually by volunteer dispatcher Sheila Houlihan, who will celebrate 19 years with the Sun City Center Emergency Squad in January. It’s a big job, but Houlihan said the squad’s 400-plus members make it easy for her to coordinate the effort. Year after year, she relishes her role of sorting and packing the toys.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said.
Operation Toy Soldier Coordinator Tracy Stanko confirmed the SCC Emergency Squad’s collection, the only one in southern Hillsborough County, accounted for about 40% of the 2,400 toys Veterans Funeral Care received from its affiliates and their toy drives in the Tampa Bay area last year.
Operation Toy Soldier began 13 years ago and was adopted nationally by Veterans Funeral Care in 2013.
“Everyone involved has a passion for helping members of the military, especially at this time of year, when it’s incredibly stressful for them,” Stanko said. “Money’s tight; they’re often moving or being deployed.”
For Sun City Center Emergency Squad volunteers, many of whom are veterans, the toy drive is simply another form of service.
“I think [Operation Toy Soldier] is a good thing for us to do,” said retired 1st Sgt. Mike Bardell, SCC Emergency Squad chief.
“It’s a great way for us to show the military the country is behind them.”
For more information, call Houlihan at 813-642-9871 or 813-633-1411.