LONG BEACH - Every Christmas, Santa rides through the city's streets in his sleigh, perched high atop a gleaming red Long Beach firetruck and flanked by dozens of Long Beach Police Department officers.

In that moment, pure joy can be seen in the faces of hundreds of children, who might not otherwise get a visit from the big guy on the big day.

For the firefighters and police officers who work on the "Spark of Love Toy Drive," the more than 60-year-old tradition is an exciting and rewarding experience.

However there is one man who has been an integral part of the celebration for the last several years, yet few would recognize his name.

That is 76-year-old Long Beach resident Dick Boone.



Boone, who served as a cook in the Navy before embarking on a long career as a meat cutter, has volunteered for various organizations such as hospice and the American Red Cross for more than 30 years.

He began volunteering with the Long Beach Police Department's toy drive about seven years ago, and started working in the Spark of Love Toy Drive warehouse with the Fire Department about four years ago, around the time the fire and police departments joined forces in their holiday collections.

"I love it," Boone said. "From the first day I came here I thought, `This is the place for me."'

He's a man of few words who doesn't like crowds or the spotlight, so the toy drive warehouse is the perfect place. He shows up every morning, five days a week, at 8 a.m. ready to sort donated gifts by gender and age and assemble orders for families. Last year he gave 90 hours to the toy drive, which starts the day after Thanksgiving.

"This year my wife and I said `We're taking it easy,"' Boone says.

Long Beach Fire Department spokesman Will Nash laughs at that remark.

"We have to tell him when we have other volunteers coming in to leave something for them to do," Nash says.

Dick Boone is a volunteer warehouse coordinator for the Long Beach Fire Department’s Spark of Love campaign. Boone works quietly behind the scenes
Dick Boone is a volunteer warehouse coordinator for the Long Beach Fire Department's Spark of Love campaign. Boone works quietly behind the scenes every year to ensure hundreds of local boys and girls will have a happy holiday. He also volunteers year round to help the Search and Rescue program, which trains youths aged 13 to 18 who are interested in a career in emergency services. Boone stands next to the Spark of Love trailer that delivers the toys. (Photo by Bruce Hazelton)

Boone just shakes his head and smiles before turning back to his work, plucking a plush puppy dog from a box filled with cuddly stuffed toys.

This year, Boone says as he works, is going to be even tougher than the last, with more families in need of help and fewer donations coming in.

Getting presents for the little ones is no problem; everyone loves to buy scooters and dolls and colorful blocks for toddlers. Barbies are always poplar, as are balls and bats. Stuffed animals come in by the truckload.

The shelves for boys and girls ages 7 and up, however, were nearly bare last Monday. Gifts for teens are even harder to come by, Boone said.

Nash confirmed Boones' concerns, noting the drive has received requests from every major nonprofit group in the city, with some submitting lists of 200 or more kids. Though the toy drive coordinators try to fill every order, they have to remind groups it is based on a first-come, first-served basis.

Then there are the individual families nominated by the Long Beach Unified School District and by police and firefighters who come across those in need in the course of their work.

"We may have to cut off this year," Nash said, flipping through dozens of pages of requests.

"You see a lot of organizations now doing the same thing, which cuts down on what we get," Boone adds.

"But we do what we can."

tracy.manzer@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2150, twitter.com/tmanzer

Want to help?

Donations are down this year for the annual Spark of Love Toy Drive, particularly gifts for children 7 to 18. Donatable items must be new and unwrapped and can include toys, sports equipment, clothes and school supplies. Items for teens, such as toiletries and gift cards, are also needed.

Donations can be dropped off at any local area fire station, CVS Pharmacy, Long Beach City Hall, or select local businesses. For a list of drop- off sites, go to http:// sparkoflove.org/lbfd/contact.html

Monetary donations should be made payable to "Friends of Long Beach Firefighters, Spark of Love," and mailed to 3205 N. Lakewood Blvd., Long Beach CA 90806. Dick Boone is a volunteer warehouse coordinator for the Long Beach Fire Department's Spark of Love campaign. He works quietly behind the scenes to ensure hundreds of local children will have a happy holiday. He also volunteers to help the Search and Rescue program.