NYC Firefighters Exchange Toys, Smiles, Appreciation with South Mississippi

By Donna Harris Sun Herald

Twynette Puryear’s niece and nephew were grinning ear to ear as they cradled the toys Santa’s helpers gave them at the Jackson County Civic Action building. Four-year-old LaMaia and 6-year-old Lavonte were just two of hundreds of Coast children who received gifts Saturday from firefighters from New York City and South Mississippi.

Volunteers help children pick out toys at the FDNY firefighters’ toy giveaway at Nativity BVM Catholic Elementary School in Biloxi on Saturday Dec. 8, 2012. John Fitzhugh/Sun Herald

The toy giveaway, sponsored jointly by the Stephen Siller Foundation in New York and the Gulf Coast Children’s Foundation, was on its way to being cancelled this year. The FDNY crews were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy and didn’t think they’d make it down for their annual lovefest with Coast kids. Plus, they needed the toys they’d collected to share with New York children whose homes the storm badly damaged.

Then the Biloxi Fire Department, with help from several other departments and various organizations, gathered as many toys as they could and invited the FDNY men to make a return trip and help distribute the gifts, Biloxi Fire Department Capt. Michelle Crowley said.

The New Yorkers came eagerly, but not empty-handed.

When they arrived Thursday, they bought $12,000 worth of toys at the Biloxi Wal-Mart to give out in Moss Point, Biloxi and Gulfport.

They also brought a Penske truck filled with toys.

At least three of the 20 men who made the trip this year suffered severe damage to their homes in Sandy.

But they wanted to be here to help make Christmas special for Coast children.

“It’s all about serving the families,” retired FDNY firefighter Jimmy Lanza said.

Puryear was appreciative of the volunteers who helped bring smiles to her niece and nephew’s faces, despite their own adversities.

“It really touches my heart,” she said. “It makes you appreciate it more.”

The FDNY crews split up Friday and visited Head Start classrooms in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, sharing cookies, milk and hugs with the students.

On Saturday, they watched as each of the children picked a treasured gift out of the pile.

Vanessa Gibson, program director for Jackson County Civic Action, was worried earlier this week there wouldn’t be enough toys to go around.

She shared her concern with Debbie Anglin, the communications director of the Pascagoula School District.

“She told me to have faith, that God is in control,” Gibson said.

She shouldn’t have worried.

There were more than enough toys at all three distribution sites. Extras will go to various South Mississippi organizations for help filling Christmas wish lists, she said.

The FDNY firefighters left Saturday with another truck filled with toys for New York children and a check for $9,000 presented to them from the Junior Auxiliary of Biloxi-Ocean Springs.

“They had a great time,” Crowley said.

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