By John Ramos

SANTA ROSA (KPIX) — COVID-19 has changed the way holiday toy drives operate and one effort in the North Bay is using the lessons learned from the pandemic to reach more kids than ever.

Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square was feeling the holiday spirit Saturday morning. At the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit station, volunteers were collecting toys at a drive-through event and SMART’s brand-new general manager, Eddy Cummins, got to play Santa’s helper his first week on the job.

“Lots of people out here and, like I said, we’re making a difference in the community and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

It was SMART’s 6th annual Holiday Express toy drive. They used to decorate one of their trains and collect toys at the stations but “COVID changed that for everybody and it takes a village to put on a toy drive during COVID,” said event coordinator Susan Barnes.

Last year SMART joined forces with Toys for Tots, Sutter Health, Secret Santa, the Salvation Army and firefighters to hold one unified effort that collected more than 50,000 toys for kids in Sonoma County.

“Who knows?” said Barnes. “It may be our next new model because it really worked for the non-profits and SMART to band together.”

Those who dropped off toys this year were treated to gift bags and a free ticket to ride the train and donor Michelle Reed, from Petaluma, said she hopes it will help ease some of the feelings of isolation.

“That way, people realize that people are out there,” she said, “and you aren’t by yourself anymore — or feel like you should be by yourself.”

The pandemic may have kept us all apart but, in doing so, it taught us a lesson about the futility of trying to go it alone.

“I think that’s one of the gifts of COVID — is we’ve all learned we need to band together,” Barnes said. “So everybody who drives through is so happy to give and so happy to be a part of it. The Christmas spirit brought us all together for the kids that need it!”

Non-profits have learned that more can be accomplished when all the elves are working together in the same workshop.

Organizers say it’s not too late to donate. New, unwrapped toys can be dropped off at any Toys for Tots collection site until Dec. 10.