When UC Berkeley police Captain Alex Yao heard 5,000 children in Butte County had lost their homes in the deadly Camp Fire, he knew the campus community would help.
He launched a campuswide toy drive that collected some 4,500 basketballs, dolls, art supplies, bicycles, Beanie Babies and other toys. Yao and a half dozen other Berkeleyans yesterday delivered the toys to leaders in Butte County, who will make sure they get to young victims of the fire.
"This is one of the most rewarding operations I have ever been a part of," said Yao, a 23-year veteran of the campus police force. "It was beyond my wildest expectations."
The boxes of toys were loaded into a bus, mail van and police patrol car early in the day for the ride north to Chico, where Yao met with Al Smith, a lieutenant with the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, Michael Greer, president of the Paradise school board, and Tom Bosenko, the Shasta County sheriff, who accepted a truckload of toys for survivors of the Carr Fire.
"This Berkeley donation is massive," Smith said as UCPD officers hauled box after box out of the three vehicles. "It is hard to process, actually."
Smith, who spent 30 straight days working after the Camp Fire started on November 8, said he is only beginning to comprehend the outpouring of donations that have arrived in Butte County. The fire destroyed more than 13,900 homes, including those of Smith’s two adult children.
"Every fire victim in Paradise and Concow, they lost virtually everything," he said. "That’s why this is all so helpful; they’re just starting from scratch."
The county has opened a store of donated items, Smith said, where victims can push a cart through the aisles and collect toys as well as blankets, clothes and other essential items. Many of the toys delivered by Berkeley on Thursday will likely end up there.
Donors from around the world have contributed goods and millions of dollars to fire victims, but Greer said seeing Berkeleyans arrive to hand-deliver the toys meant a lot.
"It is the things that come from local people that really matter," he said.
Greer said the toys will be especially important to parents as Christmas approaches. Even before the fire, many residents of the area struggled to make ends meet or put gifts under the tree.
"A lot of these kids, they would only get one or two gifts a year," he said. "Being able to give their kids something this year, even if they’re living in a hotel, can mean a lot. Donations like this don’t just reach the kids, they reach the parents as well."
Victor Brown, a UC Berkeley bus driver for 16 years, didn’t hesitate when his boss asked him to take his campus shuttle bus on the six-hour round-trip to Chico.
"I look at myself and ask, ’If I were in that situation would I like help?’ and yeah, I’d want help," he said. "If I’m in a position where I can help, you don’t have to ask me twice."
Among the donations were 1,101 Beanie Babies, given by Emil Schissel, a staffer in the economics department. The stuffed animals belonged to his sister, Melinda Schissel, who also worked at Berkeley and died in 2013.
"I saw an announcement of the toy drive and I thought this was perfect because I didn’t want to throw these away, I really wanted these in the hands of children who lost something," he said.
He said his sister, who struggled with heart and lung problems for most of her life, found the Beanie Babies to be a source of comfort and hope during surgery or hospital stays.
"Perhaps they’ll bring some joy and hope under a time of great stress, as they did for my sister," he said. "I think she would be happy with this decision."
Bosenko, who will deliver a pickup truck’s worth of toys to children who lost homes in Shasta County’s Camp Fire, said the generosity of Berkeley - and everyone else who donated to wildfire victims - could have long-term consequences.
"They’re all going to remember getting these donations for the rest of their lives," he said. "These kids are going to grow up and remember and they’re going to give back."