If anyone understands the gravity of playing Santa this season, in a year of pandemic-related hardship and uncertainty, it’s Wes Shaw, the unofficial toy man of greater Tampa.
“I’ll tell you, I’m nervous about it,” confides Shaw, the affable manager of a 24-hour Walgreens in Clearwater Beach, Fla. “The need is bigger than ever this year. There’s a lot of pressure I didn’t expect. You tell yourself we have to be better than last year – or at least just as good.”
Shaw is referring to what has become his baby each year: a charitable team-up between Walgreens and local lodges of the Florida State Elks Association in which customers are encouraged to buy and donate new toys, which the Elks then collect and distribute before Christmas to children in three counties. This year, the fourth for the program, 137 Walgreens stores were involved, more than ever before.
About $73,000 worth of toys and gifts were collected a year ago – enough for 4,000 families – up from $45,000 in 2018 and $13,000 in 2017. There was no set target this year because of the coronavirus potentially limiting what people could give, and Shaw – the liaison between the Elks and all participating stores – won’t know the totals until after Christmas. But he’s increasingly hopeful the numbers will grow again.
“The excitement is definitely building,” he says. “I’ve gotten reports from different stores that they’re getting more and more people to give. It’s very much a ‘hope, pray and drive engagement’ kind of charity event.”
Three time zones away, Jerry Pira, another Walgreens store manager in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is also optimistic – and rolling with the punches of 2020. For the last 11 years, Walgreens has been the biggest contributing partner in the California Highway Patrol’s “CHiPs for Kids” toy drive, collecting an average of 40,000 toys for children who might not otherwise get a gift. Pira has been at the center of it all, establishing the relationship with the CHP and appearing in local TV segments as part of an annual media day at his store. This year’s media day was canceled at the last minute because of the coronavirus, but that didn’t change his goal: 50,000 toys collected at 550 Walgreens stores up and down California.
“There are more people than ever who need us,” Pira says. “Families need us. CHP officers tell me every year that even with more than 100,000 toys collected in all, it’s never enough. And that was before the pandemic and people losing their jobs.”
Shaw and Pira live 2,500 miles apart and have never met, but their paths to becoming toy drive maestros are strikingly similar. Like untold numbers of Walgreens employees who help those less fortunate at the holidays, each started out looking for a meaningful way to help his community. And each happened to make the right connections at the right time.
Santa has his elves. In Clearwater, Shaw had his Elks. He joined his local lodge in 2016 as a way to network with seniors and set up local flu shot clinics through Walgreens. When he and his district manager decided they could do better than the limited holiday toy drive that had been held in previous years, he knew just who to call for muscle.
“They were all about it and could give us the infrastructure we needed,” Shaw says.
The same customer approach is used in California, where Pira first walked into the office of the CHP public information officer in 2009 asking how Walgreens could get involved with CHiPS for Kids. The drive’s biggest partner, KB Toys, had recently gone out of business, and Pira knew Walgreens could help on a large scale.
His ambition was initially too large – the CHP was only looking for support from 100 stores in and around Los Angeles. But Pira didn’t know that and soon had more than double that number signed up. The “accident,” he says with a laugh, grew from there and has become a spectacular statewide effort. With Walgreens as its only toy-selling partner, CHiPs for Kids soon began surpassing the 100,000-toy mark from all combined sponsors. Just like the Elks in the Tampa area, police officers from the CHP handle all toy pickups and distribution in California, leaving Walgreens to focus on driving donations, with support from two local TV stations. Customers love the giving experience because it’s the right mix of convenient and personal.
“A lot of donation events involve the PIN pad, where people can give $5 or $10, but they don’t see anything after that,” Pira says. “Programs like this allow them to actually pick a toy and put it in the box themselves.”
Store manager Jerry Pira (center) with customer service associates Vicki Pinto (left) and Lorraine Mikels and some of the toys collected at his store in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Powerful in person – or from a distance
Getting the toys in kids’ hands has been a different process this year because of the pandemic. Large parties have been replaced with distanced or drive-thru pickups where parents can come and choose toys for their children based on age, to be wrapped by volunteers on site.
What hasn’t changed is the resulting joy, and Shaw and Pira know firsthand what that looks like. After all their coordination behind the scenes – working through the logistics of pickups, answering hundreds of emails and inspiring employees with stories and photos from fellow store managers – they have attended in person in previous years to see kids open gifts that wouldn’t be possible without Walgreens.
“It’s moving,” says Shaw, his voice hitching. “When I talk about it, I get a little bit choked up because it’s just so awesome to see. This is why what I do matters. This is part of the job that keeps me going.”
Pira recalls the closing ceremony at one CHiPs for Kids event in particular. He and other sponsor representatives stood on a step behind a young boy and girl as they unwrapped donated gifts. Everyone was thanked for coming, and the family left.
“Then the little boy runs back, speaking really fast,” Pira remembers, “and he goes, ‘My mom wanted to tell you that we love Walgreens, we love you, thank you so much, and we really appreciate you,’ and then he runs back out.”
Jerry Pira does a local TV interview with his daughter, Caity, at his side.
In this challenging year, Pira thinks about that mom and so many like her.
“I have kids,” he says, “and this is part of the program we don’t always consider: We concentrate on the children, but what about the adults? If you’re a parent and can’t provide a quality toy for your child, what would that make you feel like? It would kill me. Walgreens collected 48,000 toys for CHiPs for Kids last year. That’s 48,000 kids we helped – but we really helped 96,000 people if you count a single parent who can’t provide, and far more than that if it’s two parents.”
Shaw considers the number of lives touched even greater than that. Employees are inspired by the program and passionate about the cause. At last year’s Walgreens holiday party for the area, store managers pooled money to buy an additional 1,500 toys for the Elks to distribute.
This level of giving is good for the soul. And the community sees. It remembers. Some local seniors have transferred their prescriptions to Walgreens, their loyalty earned because of the toy drive. Earlier this month, another local charity that works with the Elks came faithfully to Shaw with a special order for 1,000 canned hams.
“I get really excited when these relationships start to go both ways,” Shaw says. “It’s not just me doing things for other people – now my store is being affected in a positive way, too. I really feel this is how we achieve the vision of being ‘America’s most-loved pharmacy,’ as we say. How can you be America’s most-loved anything? It’s by doing stuff like this.”
Do you have stories of Walgreens team members making a difference in your community? Share them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.