On Sunday, Nov. 10, 20-year-old Ashlee Smith and her mother Erika, both Reno, Nevada residents, pulled up to the Healdsburg Community Center with a trailer of toys, board games and stuffed animals and gave away hundreds of toys to kids who lost their homes in the Kincade Fire.
Smith estimates that nearly 1,500 toys, crafts and art supplies were given to kids and adults in need.
“We bring a lot of toys,” Smith said.
The event was part of Ashlee’s Toy Closet, a nonprofit started by Smith when she was 8 years old following the 2007 Angora Fire that started in Echo Lake and went through South Lake Tahoe.
“I’ve experienced house fires so I know how they felt,” Smith said.
Even if a house is saved from a fire, it can still suffer severe smoke damage resulting in the need to throw out things like toys, towels, or linens.
Smith said that can be hard for kids who return home and may not understand why they have to get rid of their things.
She went through a similar scenario in 2005 when she lost all of her toys in a house fire when she was 6.
“Due to major smoke damage, they made us get rid of everything,” Smith said.
When Smith saw the news about the Kincade Fire she knew she had to mobilize the toy drive and started collecting donations.
“We get big donations,” Smith said. Local groups in Reno and organizations like the Little League often give toys to her organization.
She said the local Little League team gave around 200 to 300 toys for the Kincade Fire toy drive.
“We also have toy drop-off locations in Reno,” Smith said.
Once the donated toys were collected, Smith was able to get a truck on loan from a Reno car dealership. Smith and her mom borrowed a trailer and they hauled the toys up from Nevada to Healdsburg — a five-hour long trek.
Smith said the kids were all smiles when they came to the community center on Sunday morning. She recalled that one little boy was particularly excited about picking up a “Paw Patrol” helicopter.
She estimates that around 200 families came to pick out a toy.
In addition to traditional toys, they also brought items like arts and crafts sets and coloring books.
“We tried to accommodate older kids, too,” she said.
She said holding the giveaways are rewarding because while essentials like clothes, blankets and food are often the first items to be donated following a disaster, non-essentials like toys are often put on the back burner.
“It was so scary how quickly people lost their homes,” she said. “What struck me was how close it got.”
When Smith isn’t organizing toy drives she is working on her bachelor’s degree at the University of Nevada Reno, where she studies criminal justice.