The spirit of Christmas has come early to the family-run O’Keeffe’s Automotive Service garage in Oak Bay. For Tom and Tina O’Keeffe, their annual toy drive is one of the most important things they do for the community. They’ve both seen the heartbreak when families can’t afford Christmas.
“I work with a lot of parents who have been in that position,” says Tina, who works as a school teacher and has also fostered children in the past. “I’ve met foster kids whose mom or dad have had to say, ‘Santa’s not going to come.’”
“The hardest thing is when the kids go to school,” says Tom, “and other kids ask them what Santa brought them, and they have to say ‘nothing.’”
Tom has an especially unique perspective: he has 85 foster brothers and sisters. His mother fostered children for 35 years, and she would always have a basket of gifts in a back closet, just in case kids came in during the holidays.
The O’Keeffes are doing everything they can to carry on her example.
The toy drive started in 2007 when Tina, who had volunteered with the Salvation Army in the past, wanted to do something for the holidays. Tom suggested involving the garage, and within days, the first toy drive was set up.
“The first year was great,” says Tina. “We probably had over 250 toys. (The Salvation Army) were here almost every other day to pick up.” Since then, they’ve averaged between 50 and 100 toys per year, she says.
This is their second year doing the drive in the summer, in hope they can boost donations and increase the variety of gifts.
“Everyone is already under pressure to get their own gifts, and there are so many other programs that fundraise (at Christmas time),” says Tina. “People can only give so much.”
A different type of toy is available in the summer as well, she says. Skipping ropes, basketballs and other outdoor activity toys offer an alternative to the holiday and winter themed toys so prevalent in December.
The Salvation Army usually sets up its ‘toy shop,’ a multipurpose room in its basement, around the end of November or early December, says Kyla Ferns, Communications and Events coordinator for the organization.
“Once we know what parents are needing assistance, they get an appointment with a volunteer, and they get to go and ‘shop’ for their kids,” she says.
Last year, they provided toys to 1,077 children in 750 families. Each child receives an average of three to five toys, depending on the level of donations.
The shelves can be a bit bare when they first open though, and the O’Keeffes want to make sure the Salvation Army isn’t starting from scratch.
“If we could have a couple hundred toys already on the shelf to give them a head start, that would be huge,” says Tina. “Let’s overfill the shelves from Oak Bay. The more we do now, the easier it’ll be for them in November.”
The O’Keeffes are collecting donations now until Aug. 29, and toys can be dropped off at the garage, 1220 Newport Ave., Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“New and unwrapped, and the only thing (the Salvation Army asks) is no guns,” she says. Donations are collected for infants to 18-year-olds.
Teens often get left behind, adds Tina. “It’s easy to buy for babies, it’s easy to buy for eight- and nine-year-olds, but a lot of people think, ‘what am I going to get for a teenager?’”
She asks people to think of what their own children would want if they need inspiration for older kids. “Gift cards to EB Games or Ardene’s, a book set, basketballs, even a cool water bottle,” she says. “They’re all the same kind of kids.”
“Let’s build the box,” she says. “No child should go without a Christmas.”