As a former South Charleston police officer, Tony Wazelle saw a lot of things during his career, but the hardships that underprivileged kids faced always stuck with him.
“During Christmas, everyone thinks of the poor kids, and that’s fine, but you may never hear another word about them until next Christmas,” Wazelle said. “Almost every poor child can hopefully expect something on Christmas and something on their birthday, but what about these long, hot days during the summer with nothing to play with? I just thought, ‘how happy would a kid be?’ It’s not Christmas, and it’s not his birthday, but somebody knocks on his door and hands him that?”
Wazelle gestured to one of the more than 80 bicycles lining the outdoor stage of Haddad Riverfront Park in downtown Charleston. Around the bikes, volunteers had piled even more toys — a half-dozen scooters, a wagon, basketballs, dolls, and other items that had been collected in the last month.
Wazelle had wanted to pull the event together for a couple of years, but now the Tony’s Kids Christmas in July toy drive has become a reality, thanks to boaters and residents from across the county.
John and Karen Fitzgerald, who, like Wazelle, are avid boaters and members of the Kanawha River Power Squadron, said the organization teamed with the Great Kanawha River Navy to undertake the drive. The Fitzgeralds even decorated their boat with more than 7,000 Christmas lights in support of the event.
“We’re down here on the levy during the entire summer, and we always see kids down here during events, and they’re wandering around with electronics or nothing — they’re just kicking rocks,” Karen said. “All of us love kids, and Tony has been trying to start this for a couple of years, but this year he finally got it going.”
The Fitzgeralds have collected donations from aboard their boat during the last few weeks, and invested the money in toys for the drive. Many local residents also donated, as well as businesses — the Wal-Mart in Quincy gave the drive a $300 gift card, the Charleston Bicycle Company donated helmets, and they received discounts from several area stores.
“Last night (July 4), we got $1,000, and that made for about $2,000 in the last few weeks, just from people who came up to see the boat,” John Fitzgerald said.
The Kanawha River Navy gave away free hot dogs and drinks to those who donated toys at the levee Saturday during the last big push before Mountain Mission, which partnered with the organizations to distribute the toys, came to pick them up.
“We did this in about four weeks; we’ve been passing out flyers to businesses and buildings around Charleston and talking to people,” said Shirley Lytton, a friend of Wazelle’s and a volunteer for the drive. “This really has surprised me. I think it turned out fantastic.”
Lytton said the hope is to make Christmas in July an annual event, and next year, they hope to start earlier, collect more toys and spread even more mid-summer cheer.
“We just threw this all together this year,” she said. “Next year, we’re hoping to have a big celebration.”
Reach Lydia Nuzum