BY SCARLETT SALEM — Many people spend the holiday season searching high and low to find the perfect gifts for family and friends. But for some, it’s about being able to afford any gifts at all for their loved ones.
Longtime Hyattsville resident Ruth Ann Frazier understands this. That’s why she has carried on the tradition so beloved to her late husband, Sonny, of giving toys to area children at an annual Christmas party.
It all started in the Frazier living room in the 1980s, when the couple’s grandchildren were young. After a neighbor handmade a Santa costume for Sonny to wear at their holiday gathering, they began inviting children whose families had fallen on hard times.
“Sonny loved Christmas and he loved kids,” recalled Frazier. Having grown up with a sister who had Down syndrome, he soon had the idea to add children with developmental challenges to the guest list as well.
“We did this out of the house as a mom-and-pop thing. Sonny was Santa and the kids were elves,” explained Frazier, a Ward 5 councilmember since 1997. “It was priceless; I wouldn’t change those memories for anything.”
After his death in 2002, Hyattsville police Sergeant Suzie Johnson and her family stepped in to continue and expand the program, moving the party to a larger space and adding donation spots around town. In the weeks before the party, boxes at the local Safeway, Magruder Park and the municipal building slowly fill with new, unwrapped toys.
Frazier’s break from the event soon ended, and now the event remains largely a family affair, with her daughter and grandchildren helping along with a group of committed volunteers.
“Granddad always made Christmas special for us,” said grandson Eddie Beall. “This is our way of continuing that for others.”
The group usually meets in October to start soliciting donations, rounding up toys, and compiling a list of children to receive them. They get the children’s names from area schools, the police and fire departments and code-enforcement officers.
Frazier says that the number of toys collected is usually “well over 500, but this year it will be more because of the [Hyattsville Heroes Bowl] game.”
The charity event, held December 3 at Magruder Park, pitted the city police against the fire department volunteers in a flag football game. Spectators were asked to bring either a small cash donation or an unwrapped toy. The final tally, said Beall, was $1,624.
Donations come from others in the community, as well. This year, the Hyattsville City Council voted to increase its annual donation to $500, and groups ranging from Outback Steakhouse to local parents have spearheaded toy collection efforts.
Frazier appreciates all the local support. To everyone who contributes she said, “it’s not one person, it’s not 15 persons, it’s just the community. The community comes together, each in their own little way, and makes it possible.”
Now, the Sonny Frazier Toy Drive reaches more Hyattsville children than ever. “What started with maybe 5, 6, or 7 children is now about 100,” Frazier said.
The toy drive culminates in a party for the families, complete with DJ (Ruth Ann’s grandson Clint), lunch and even Santa himself, in the same suit that Sonny wore for all those years. Parents may choose up to five toys per child.
The party is one of Frazier’s favorite moments of the toy drive. “I’m a people person and what I get the most enjoyment out of is … just watching the people and seeing their reactions.”