A series of deadly tornadoes struck 6 different states on Friday, December 10th, causing major damage to many cities and a death toll that is expected to exceed 90 deaths. In Kentucky, many people have lost their homes during the time of year where many celebrate the holidays with family and friends.
Our mission was to bring the holidays to the many that have lost so much because of this tragedy. Operation Sierra Charlie was put together to begin collecting toy donations from the New York City and Long Island Area and bring them to Kentucky in hopes of bringing smiles to children’s faces. $395 was raised through our GoFundMe campaign and Instagram account thanks to generous donors. Ozone Park of the Nazarene donated to us 161 toys after holding a toy drive from their church. The NYPD Marine Corps Association’s toy drive donated 500 toys which we picked up from the Marine Corps League Post in Bayshore, Long Island.
Packing all these toys into our cargo van was no easy task. We quickly filled up our E-250 van and had to keep the rear and side doors closed to keep the toys from pouring out. We utilized every space available to maximize the toys we could bring. On the morning of December 21st, 2021, we set off for Kentucky. Driving the toys over would be our volunteers, Joseph Zoleta (President of Black 6 Project) and Eric Wong (Marine Corps Veteran). Rallying with us in Kentucky would be JD Flood (Marine Corps Veteran).
The 15-hour drive from New York City to Kentucky took us through New Jersey, Pennysylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. We would spend the night in Cave City, Kentucky and make the final drive to Bowling Green, Kentucky in the morning. There we visited the FEMA distribution center that occupied a former Sears retail store. We saw a lot of people picking up donated supplies from inside the facility but we were deterred by a sign stating that they were no longer accepting donations at the facility.
Right outside the FEMA distribution center there were two men who set up a bbq grill on the back of their trailer that was being towed by their pick up truck. These two were serving slow cooked smoked bbq and the appetizing scent overwhelmed the parking lot. One man, Charlie, was from Alabama, and the other man, Ray, was from Indiana. They had arrived in Bowling Green the night before and were part of a church looking to bring aid to the community after the tornadoes. We spoke with them while having some of their delicious bbq and Charlie said that he’d love to help us and dress up as Santa Claus but didn’t have the right outfit to wear. We realized quickly how he resembled St. Nick with his rounded nose, rosy cheeks, and thick white beard. We quickly thought up a plan to turn Charlie into Santa. We drove to a nearby Party City and found the only size XXL Santa outfit along with some Christmas themed balloons and made our way back. JD helped Charlie get into the outfit and Eric and Joseph set up the toys in the parking lot and marked our location by flying the Christmas balloons high in the sky. Quickly, the site of Santa walking across the parking lot brought stares from those coming up to the distribution center. Santa would wave as children in the car would stare with their faces pressed against the window. After parking, they would jump out in excitement and begin pulling on their parents to take them closer to Santa. After taking pictures with him, he would have them choose one toy for Christmas and his elves (Joseph, Eric, and JD) would help the children sort through the toys to find the perfect toy for them.
We would be here all day till almost dawn. Santa would stay a few more days and we left him with most of the toy donations and took what he couldn’t hold to the CentrePointe Church in Bowling Green where their volunteers were waiting to help us unload the toy donations. It was an amazing trip and showed the magic of the holidays and the happiness Santa Claus would bring. Santa symbolized hope and sometimes that’s all you have to look forward to. Thank you to everyone that supported this mission. We’re blessed to have witnessed the smiles and happiness it brought.