The spirit of giving was in full effect inside Phil’s Restaurant in Wading River Nov. 29, as toys of all shapes and sizes piled up, ready to be delivered to children in need.
The large crowd of family, friends and community members gathered at the Cheers-esque sports bar to donate toys to the Kevin Williams Foundation’s 11th annual “Kevin’s Holiday Angels” Toy Drive.
Mike and Patti Williams started the foundation in 2002 as a reaction to the passing of their 24-year-old son Kevin, who worked as a bonds salesman for Sandler O’Neill in Manhattan and was on the 104th floor of Tower Two when tragedy struck on Sept. 11, 2001. He was supposed to be married 10 weeks later. Patti Williams said that Kevin was “such a generous person” and always made others happy.
“He was the kind of person that, when you walked into the room, he would give you this smile that made you feel like the most important person,” she said.
Kevin’s childhood friend Brian Baumeister thinks that he would’ve loved how many lives this foundation has touched.
“He was just super big-hearted … such a genuine guy,” Baumeister said. “He always had your back. And he was such an unbelievable athlete.”
Because of their son’s love for sports, the Williams devoted their organization to sending children, who couldn’t afford it otherwise, to sports camps or register them to play on teams in the area as a way to “do something with his love.” Five years in, they received a call from Long Island Youth Mentoring, one of the many organizations they worked alongside, which asked them to help a local family that had recently been evicted from their home. The Williams took care of them and made sure the family had a holiday that year. It wasn’t long before they started helping other local families in similar situations.
This led the Williams’ to start the toy drive, which targets the wishes and needs of children in the area — some of which range from video game consoles to clothes to even simpler needs. Patti Williams said one family had children asking for towels to sleep on because they didn’t have beds. This year, 28 families were on the list and the pile of donations at the restaurant grew taller by the minute.
“You can’t just stay in that dark place. You have to decide — and it’s not easy — what to do to make life better for others. Then that becomes your focus and really helps you through the grieving process.”
“Our community has been there for us since the beginning … we are just so blessed,” Patti Williams said. “When you’ve had such a tragic loss in your life, you have to make a decision. You can’t just stay in that dark place. You have to decide — and it’s not easy — what to do to make life better for others. Then that becomes your focus and really helps you through the grieving process.”
Mike Williams said he couldn’t believe how many people showed up to the toy drive this year, especially on a dreary, wet evening. When you surround yourself with loving people, he said, that’s what happens.
“We’re reaching out and trying to help people,” he said. “We wake up in the morning and say ‘All right, how can we turn this into something good?’”
On Christmas Eve, he recalls showing up to the residence of a family in dire straits. In one room, there was a metal bunk bed for the kids, similar to what would be seen in a military confine. The floor was covered in clothes and was nearly impossible to walk on. They asked the mother what she was planning on doing for Christmas dinner, and when she said nothing, the Williams’ assured her the family would have a proper dinner.
When they returned the next day, Mike Williams said he was in shock.
“The beds were made like West Point cadets made them,” he said. “There wasn’t anything on the floors. The woman looked 30 years younger, and I remembering thinking ‘look at the transition we made with just one little family by caring. They were thrown away, and thought nobody cared.’”
It’s Patti Williams’ hope that the families they’ve helped get back on track, get out of their own dark places and “pay it forward” to others in need.
She said while she and her husband are the orchestrators of the toy drive, there’s a huge community effort that goes into the donations, and wrapping and delivering them.
The Wading River Fire Department donates the community room to serve as gift-wrapping space for the 60 to 70 volunteer wrappers, and Wayne Fellrath, a retired New York City firefighter, grows out his white beard and delivers toys dressed as Santa, with his wife Patty dressing as an elf.
The Fellraths said it’s heartwarming they can bring joy to children who aren’t well enough to leave their homes and see Santa.
“Patti [Williams] called me up and asked ‘Did you get your flu shot this year?’” Wayne Fellrath recalled. “I said ‘Yeah, what’s wrong?’ She said the doctor told her in order to have a visit from Santa, everybody had to have a flu shot. And I was never happier in my life to have gotten a flu shot.”
Among the large pile of donated goods children in need can look forward to is a 150-piece art set, basketballs, bedding, an XBox One and a Power Rangers toy set. On the morning of Dec. 17, the pile will be brought to the firehouse to be wrapped and shipped out.