| The Pueblo Chieftain
Mike Cisneros, J.T. Trujillo and Freddie Gallegos Jr. are doing all they can to make sure COVID-19 doesn’t become the Grinch that stole Christmas.
Cisneros and J.T. Trujillo have been the biggest champions of the annual Toy Bowl for decades. That gridiron matchup between Pueblo Bikers United and local law enforcement has, along with the Toy Run in December, long served as the primary fundraiser for the holiday gift drive that benefits hundreds of underprivileged children.
But for the first time in 40 years, the Toy Bowl has been cancelled: another victim of the enduring pandemic.
“We are big time disappointed,” Cisneros said. “It’s was about seeing everyone again and, of course, collecting money and toys for the kids.”
In lieu of the Toy Bowl, Pueblo Bikers United arrived at a compromise fitting for the times: a livestream of a virtual Madden NFL contest, pitting the Denver Broncos (bikers) against the New York Giants (law enforcement.)
Cruz Martinez, grandson of J.T. Trujillo, is organizing the online event.
“We’re very disappointed that we had to cancel the Toy Bowl,” Trujillo said. “But we know we still have to make some money for the kids. We had no choice but to do it this way.”
The virtual Toy Bowl, Trujillo said, will feature “commercials” paid for by local sponsors, and offer the opportunity to purchase commemorative 2020 Toy Bowl T-shirts and make online financial donations,
The virtual action will begin at 2 p.m. today (Saturday) at Twitch.tv/RiderofDeath18. It can be viewed on any device with access to the internet.
Those unable to catch the contest but who want to donate or purchase a shirt can do so at riderofdeath18.com.
To supplement funds raised through the virtual Toy Bowl, Pueblo Bikers United will soon be placing “tip jars” and toy collection boxes at businesses throughout the city.
Cisneros is encouraging always generous Puebloans to dig a little deeper in this most unusual holiday season.
“Kids still need a Christmas,” Cisneros said. “In fact, they need it now more than ever, with people out of work and so many struggling.”
At this time, Cisneros and Trujillo are unsure if the Toy Run’s decades-long streak of success will similarly be broken.
“If we aren’t able to have it, then we will have to try to figure something out,” Cisneros said.
True to the pledge of being “always faithful,” the United States Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program is already in full swing locally.
Freddie Gallegos Jr. is at the helm for the seventh year.
“We’ve already distributed 800 toys to Pueblo Cooperative Care and started distribution to families on Friday,” said Gallegos, a veteran of several military branches. “We’re hoping to reach as many families as we can: hopefully more than 10,000 children.”
Last year, Toys for Tots supported nearly 9,200 local children, with more than 11,320 toys distributed.
From a Downtown location that serves as both warehouse and distribution site, Gallegos, his wife Corrine, longtime volunteer Sarah Ayala and her granddaughter, Lillian Martinez, spent Friday dispersing a litany of gifts to grateful families.
“I am starting all over having a family,” said Selene Griego, who was picking up items for her infant son. “I have kids in their 20s, so this is all new for me, starting all over again.”
Griego said she had a good position with iQor but was laid off during the pandemic.
“I’ve been struggling to make ends meet,” she offered. “So one of my friends told me about this program. And this means a lot to me, because I’m trying to get back on my feet.”
Families and individuals who want to participate in Toys for Tots must file a request form at pueblo-co.toysfortots.org. Toys and gifts, available for newborns through high school seniors, will be distributed through the first part of December.
Last year, Gallegos partnered with the national Toys for Tots foundation and the Pueblo Police Department in delivering gifts to every Pueblo School District 60 preschool and elementary school.
He is optimistic that D60 youngsters again will benefit from the collaborative effort.
“I’m waiting to hear from national on that,” he said.
And while Gallegos is giving the toy drive his all this year, it will be the final time he will steer the ship.
In addition to re-entering the working world, Gallegos is battling an ongoing health issue that is preventing him from leading the operation.
“Unfortunately, this will be my last year as coordinator,” Gallegos said. “I am looking for a replacement and the sooner word gets out the better: that way I can show them how to run a campaign.
“I plan on staying involved if someone else can run it.”
If a replacement coordinator doesn’t step forward, Gallegos fears it will be the children who suffer the fallout.
“Pueblo needs someone to take over or Pueblo will no longer have a Toys for Tots program. And I can tell you, there is a lot of need out there,” Gallegos said.
Throughout the county, some 50 Toys for Tots collection boxes await donated new, unwrapped toys and gift items. Financial donations can be made through pueblo-co.toysfortots.org.
To contact Gallegos, call 248-3430.
Chieftain reporter Jon Pompia can be reached by email at [email protected] or at twitter.com/jpompia.