The Train of Hope...

Here, along the Gulf Coast, we know what hurricanes can do, how they destroy homes, affect lives, uproot families. We struggled through the devastation of Katrina and came out the other side stronger for it, but we didn’t do it alone. We had help. And now, with so many families in places like Staten Island, NY, and Sea Bright, NJ, wrestling with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, it’s our turn to reach out and let those suffering know that someone understands and cares.

Collection points in St. Tammany Parish, Greater New Orleans and the Lafayette area have just finished collecting donations of badly needed supplies and Christmas toys to be transported via Amtrak Dec. 14 to areas of New York and New Jersey devastated by hurricane Sandy.

The first Train of Hope effort, organized in early November in St. Tammany Parish, brought a boxcar full of needed supplies up to affected areas with the help of Amtrak, many generous individuals and volunteers. The train was loaded with donated cleaning supplies, diapers and other baby items, pet food, toiletries, coats and blankets. Those items are still needed. But the second train also will be bringing up toys for kids who may not have a Christmas without them.

Toys collected in Louisiana will be divided between the Lt. Bobby Ryan Toy Drive in Staten Island and the USMC Reserve 6th Motor Transport Battalion Toys for Tots effort out of Red Bank, NJ. Both drives distribute toys at holiday time to needy children in hospitals, shelters and other nonprofit organizations. The drives make a huge difference in the lives of children every year, but this year needs are greater than ever.

GySgt Jack Santelli knows firsthand what toys can mean to kids. Santelli heads up the USMC Toys for Tots efforts in some of the New Jersey counties hardest hit by Sandy. “We have a lot of destroyed and damaged homes, a lot of families relocated to shelters,” he says. “Toys for Tots is geared toward helping needy kids at Christmas but this year we are getting a lot more requests for donations.” More requests, but the effort is hampered, he says, by the fact that a lot of the usual collection points have been destroyed and many people who might have donated in the past are themselves in need of help.

In Staten Island, NY, about 30 miles to the north of Red Bank, Kathleen Ryan also is collecting toys with a new sense of urgency. Staten Island suffered immense destruction, with many people still unable to return to their homes or any sense of normalcy. Ryan, a mother of four, knows what that feels like, her own life having been forever changed by the November 2008 death of her firefighter husband, Lt. Robert Ryan, of the New York Fire Department. Considered a “fireman’s fireman,” according to the New York Daily News, Ryan was killed in a blaze sparked by faulty wiring.

Lt. Ryan had been badly injured in a fire two years prior to his death and spent time in a burn unit at Staten Island University Hospital. “It crushed him to see so many kids in the burn unit,” says Kathleen and after his recovery the firefighter and his wife started the Lt. Bobby Ryan Toy Drive.

“At first,” says Kathleen, “the toy drive was for kids in the burn unit but then it extended to the children’s ward. And then it got bigger and included needy kids in the community, the kids in shelters.”

After Lt. Ryan’s death, his wife kept the toy drive going in his memory. The holiday season is always a bittersweet time for her but this year has been especially hard with so much need all around her. As usual, donations for the Lt. Bobby Ryan Toy Drive will be accepted at Ryan’s old engine house, Engine 155, Ladder 78, on the north shore of Staten Island. But this Christmas the drive will have help from the Train of Hope.

“The kids receiving the toys are amazed that total strangers care about them,” says Kathleen, explaining why her late husband felt so strongly about the drive and why it’s so important this year especially. Her voice breaks a little when she says, “It’s hard for me this time of year. But as a parent you know what it takes to make a child smile again.

“Bobby was an amazing dad, a wonderful person. He was a doer. He got things done. He always said he was paying it forward, not paying it back.”

It feels good to be able to pay it forward.