Ten years ago, Elton Bradley, president and founder of the Northside Toy Drive, was driving around his neighborhood on a cold day when a group of children, standing at a bus stop, caught his eye. Some of them weren’t wearing coats. Right then, he decided he needed to do something for his community.
“It made me think about Christmas because it was wintertime,” Bradley says. “At the time, everybody wanted to have a Christmas party and what better way to tie it in than to bring a couple of gifts, have a Christmas party and at the same time be able to help out some kids.”
Bradley contacted his longtime friend and owner of Rain Premiere Sushi Bar and told her his idea. He invited around 25 of his friends to the party and asked them all to bring toys. The first year, they filled half of a small motorcycle trailer with toys and gave them away at the North Branch of the YMCA, now Warford Community Center.
This year, 2022, marks the 10th anniversary of Amarillo’s Northside Toy Drive. What started as a small get-together between friends has grown exponentially into a city-wide special occasion. The organization has hosted its Black Tie Affair fundraiser at the Civic Center for several years now, cementing its status as Amarillo’s largest formal event. Bradley says people come from all over the U.S. to attend the Black Tie Affair.
This year, the event sold out in four days.
A Beautiful Night
“The Black Tie Affair is dinner, dancing, casino games and cocktails,” says Allison Roberts, vice president of the Northside Toy Drive. “We’re sold out of tables but people can still come. They can wear their dancing shoes and bring a toy, enjoy the buffet and come and celebrate with us.”
For the second year in a row the Brass-A-Holics and DJ Cleve have agreed to perform at the event. “I’ve never been to the Grammy’s but I feel like this would be a Grammy after-party,” Bradley says. “It’s just a beautiful night, full of energy, full of love, full of laughter and people coming together. It’s just an uplifting experience.”
Bradley says the Black Tie Affair is one of his favorite nights of the year, but he thinks the best part of the toy drive is the giveaway. “I like the party more than the average,” he says. “But that next day, when we go all night until midnight, and then we load these moving trucks and diesel trucks and head over to the gym, there’s a line at 8 a.m. waiting for us to give away something at 1 p.m. You see blocks of people lined up. These kids get to experience a real shopping spree at no expense, other than patience. So, those are tear-jerking moments when you see a kid light up.”
Over the years, the organization has given away toys, clothes, Christmas dinners, goodie bags, gift cards, books, shoes and scholarships. Bradley estimates that the organization has helped more than 15,000 children experience the joys of Christmas. “That’s what Christmas is about. We think about gifts and sometimes people forget about the true meaning and that’s Christ,” Bradley says. “What He has in our life and the purposes He has. That’s to give hands up, not hands out. Not to look down on but help each other. It just reinforces what people can do when they get together, the power people have when they put all their resources in one direction.”
Donated in Love
Prisella Arreola and her children have attended the giveaway a few times. “My kids love to go and see all the toys they give out,” she says. “They get to pick a toy without me having to be like ‘No, I can’t get that toy right now,’ so they love that.”
Arreola reached out to the Northside Toy Drive on Facebook not long after Thanksgiving in 2018, when a fire destroyed her home. “I was devastated because I had already bought all of our Christmas gifts for the family. So, we lost it all,” she says.
The same day Arreola sent her message, Bradley called her and without hesitation, told her not to worry, asked her how many children she had and what they wanted for Christmas. “My son wanted a bike and my daughter was still small, she was about 15 months old. I think it is for kids 2 and up but they still got her a kitchen and some stuffed animals. I was grateful for them. I am waiting for my kids to get a little older so we can go and volunteer so they can feel what it is like to help others. I know that my kids would love it,” Arreola says.
Members of the toy drive are adamant that the children choose what they want for Christmas. “We have more toys than we know what to do with,” says Bowden Jones Jr., secretary of the Northside Toy Drive. “If you’ve never attended and you show up, you’ll see that the entire gym floor is basically covered in toys and bikes.”
As soon as it’s a child’s turn to choose their gift, a toy drive volunteer takes them around the winding sea of toys, while their parents meet them after they’ve chosen exactly what they wanted.
“If they want a bike and there are some available, then they are certainly welcome to them,” Roberts adds. “Sometimes we have kids who only want something small and Mom and Dad are screaming, ‘Hey, you need to pick this,’ and they’re just so thankful for that one little something that they want. Our volunteers know if they choose something small to encourage them to get another one. We want it to be worthwhile for them.”
Jones says as long as gifts are donated in love, it doesn’t matter what people give to the toy drive. He says there’s going to be a child who wants exactly what was provided. “You can see kids come out sometimes with the smallest thing, the smallest toy, but the biggest smile.”
Bradley says he’s seen children pass up $100 and $200 toys and head straight for a $10 toy. “You see a kid pass a bike or pass a four-wheeler for a small Barbie doll,” he says. “You realize what life is about. These kids might go to Family Dollar or Dollar General every day and they’ve been looking at this small toy all year, but their mom and dad couldn’t provide it. But that’s what they had their eyes set on. They didn’t have their eyes set on the expensive bike at Target or Walmart or an expensive karaoke set. They’ve had their eyes on this doll for months.”
Bradley remembers a little boy walking into the toy drive one year. He noticed that the boy’s shoes were falling apart—just completely separating. Someone had donated clothes and several pairs of shoes that year.
“He took his shoes off and threw them in the trash, and he put his brand-new LeBrons on,” Bradley says. “Then he went and got a basketball. This kid, all he wanted to do is play basketball. He didn’t have the shoes to play, and he didn’t have a basketball to practice with. Now, this kid is playing basketball. Ten years later, he’s on a
high school basketball team. Here this kid is possibly going to go to school to play basketball in college, but at that time we helped him because we gave him the tools he needed and that was all through giving back.”
The founder says he’ll never forget that moment. “You don’t really realize how much of an impact a small donation can make. Just think, the year he started practicing somebody spent $200 and it made the hugest impact. You don’t know what impact him going off to school is going to have for his family. That story, seeing that kid run up to me and thank me for a pair of tennis shoes and a basketball, that some would’ve taken for granted, but was everything to him,” Bradley says. “That really kind of changed the trajectory.”
Although the beginning was modest, the toy drive has evolved into a beloved annual tradition and Bradley is excited to see what comes next. “I want to take the North Side Toy Drive from being just a community project, to a city project and eventually grow to be a tri-state affair,” he says. “Where we have enough resources to be able to help those in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. That comes with Amarillo being what Amarillo is. It’s just a giving city and it always has been and we just want to continue to help people come together to be able to help others.”
The Black Tie Affair is from 6-9 p.m. on Dec. 17 at the Amarillo Civic Center. The giveaway starts at 1 p.m. on Dec. 17 at the Palo Duro High School gymnasium.