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Santa Rosa firefighters kick off toy drive


Santa Claus was impressed and a little sobered.

Several kids at Sunday's annual Santa Rosa firefighters' union pancake breakfast and toy drive did what kids do — told Santa what they hoped to get for Christmas.

But three young boys and girls in particular surprised the typically jolly guy.

"I want my family to be together for Christmas," one young child told Santa, who also goes by the name Ken Reese.

"Another one told me they wanted to bring joy to the world. ... and the other one said they wanted their uncle to come home from Iraq," Santa said, estimating the kids were about seven or eight years old.

"Those are serious things for the little kids to be asking for. That's a huge burden to be carrying," said the man behind the white beard, whose serious day job is to oversee the handling of 911 calls to Sonoma County's emergency fire dispatch center.

An estimated 500 people attended the event at the Santa Rosa Veteran's Memorial Hall.

It was held in a side room decorated cheerily in green and red, with long rows of tables for the customers and a seat for Santa next to a Christmas tree.

It's been held by Santa Rosa firefighters for 15 or so years. The breakfast, staffed mainly by off-duty firefighters and family members, kicks off the holiday toy drive by firefighters' Local 1401.

The cost for a full plate of pancakes and sausage was a toy or $5 cash donation. Several Sunday said the event was an annual tradition.

"It's nice to support them, do this for the kids. I like that," said Santa Rosa resident Debbie Lopez, who has attended for years with friend Vernann Helstock.

"It's a community event and we get to check out the cute firefighters," Lopez said with a laugh.

Cristin Tuider and Art Jahnsen of Santa Rosa said they never miss the breakfast.

"There's Santa Claus, the food is good. It's a good cause," said Jahnsen, who also appreciated the easy access to Santa.

As Santa Claus wandered the room greeting people, he came over to the couple and their son Dean, 6. The excited boy got a hug and a quick chat.

Tuider said that the annual breakfast helps them emphasize the concept of giving.

"We're trying to teach our son to give toys to the disadvantaged," she said, telling him that bringing a gift to Santa Claus helps him pass them on to those in need.

Several fire departments and charitable groups countywide also gather holiday donations for the needy.

Santa Rosa's firefighters collect toys for about 10,000 Sonoma County kids each year. Qualifying children are identified by area schools and churches, said breakfast organizer Dean Bourdage, who drives a Santa Rosa fire engine.

From now until right before Christmas, barrels will be out in front of the city's 10 stations for drop-offs of unwrapped new toys.

Off-duty firefighters also will staff a donation spot at the downtown Santa Rosa Plaza.

Donations of cash or checks will fund a final shopping effort to make sure there are gifts for all ages.

Engineer Bourdage said he hoped this year's shorter holiday season — four weeks instead of five — won't result in too few toys.

"There's a shorter time for collecting toys, sorting toys and distributing," Bourdage said.

Sunday's breakfast brought in about $3,500 and a few hundred toys, he said.

Tax-deductible checks may be made out to Local 1401 and sent to the Santa Rosa firefighters union at P.O. Box 1251, Santa Rosa 95402.

(You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.)