At 6 foot 2 inches, John Strachan makes for a tall elf when he puts on his costume. The first counselor in the Port Coquitlam Ward bishopric in the Vancouver British Columbia Stake dresses up as an elf every year at Christmas for a special cause — bringing toys, joy and smiles to children.
Strachan works for TransLink BC, and has been organizing the company’s yearly Toys for Tots program for 16 years. He coordinates picking up donations from Translink centers, bus loops and private companies.
Strachan rides a bus that is decorated like a reindeer around Vancouver, picking up and dropping off toys, giving out candy canes with Santa and Mrs Claus, and visiting with sick children at Ronald McDonald House and Canuck Place.
This past Christmas, the Vancouver British Columbia Stake participated in the Toys for Tots drive for the first time. Stake high councilor and JustServe coordinator Bruno Venditti used JustServe.org to promote the project and allow more toys to be collected for the effort.
New toy donations were brought to the Coquitlam, Burnaby, North Shore and 41st Street Vancouver chapels. Between Church members, JustServe volunteers, private donors, and employees from Translink, Coast Mountain Bus Company, BC Rapid Transit Company and Transit Police, Strachan collected approximately 2,823 toys and over $2,500 in donated funds the week before Christmas.
Venditti said, “It is a blessing to see how members were careful about the toys. We had donations for all ages, including teenagers and babies who are usually the most neglected ages. What a great opportunity for our family to participate at Christmastime.”
Strachan said the toy gathering program — which TransLink has been doing for 36 years now — wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of people around Vancouver. Over the years, the toy drive has donated almost 90,000 toys and raised over $53,000 in donations for the Lower Mainland Christmas Bureau charity.
“One person might give one present, someone else might give 10,” Strachan said. “And when you see the things that come through, holy cow. We’ve had bicycles, foosball tables, all sorts of incredible things that come through. Dolls that are 3 foot tall. We joke, we’ll have to charge these dolls bus fare.”
What started as one decorated bus has become a fleet of nine buses — one named after each of Santa’s reindeer. This next year, the maintenance crew plans to decorate the buses with more lights that will turn off and on in sync to Christmas music playing out of an external speaker.
A team of eight TransLink employees work together collecting the toys. They used to work 12 to 13 hours a day. Now they have spread the effort over more days, making it more manageable. The whole season of driving the decorated buses around the city, delivering toys and visiting the children lasts for two weeks.
“I’m pretty tired for those two weeks but it is worth it. Every single moment is worth it,” said Strachan. And the best moments are when he is able to visit with sick children and their families at Ronald McDonald House and Canuck Place.
One year, he knew after entering a room that a child would not live very long. But the child’s mother was so grateful that someone had remembered her son at Christmas time.
Strachan said Christmas took a different meaning for him when he started doing Toys for Toys and the reindeer bus.
“I can remember as a teenager, I worked in a mall at Christmas time, and seeing how people act in the mall at Christmas time put a sour taste in my mouth. It was too commercialized,” he said. “But doing things like this, lifts me up.”
And he sees how the effort lifts others up, as they contribute toys, ride the bus and sing Christmas carols, get a candy cane from Santa or wave at the bus when it goes by. They catch the spirit of Christmas, he said, “and the spirit of Christmas is the spirit of Christ.”
“Do I feel closer to the spirit? Yes,” he said. “Do I feel closer to the Savior, yes. Do I feel more of the Christmas spirit? Oh, yes.”