On Dec. 2, as Danny Johnson and his stepson, Fred Rodriguez, had stopped to get gas during the second Saline County Toy Run of the year, a little girl ran up to “Santa” to get a picture.
“And she tells him all that she wants for Christmas,” Rodriguez said. “Every kid, everywhere we go — he gets out, and he talks to them.”
Rodriguez said after they got back into the truck, another gentleman came up to the window and handed Johnson a $20 bill and said, “Put this toward a toy.”
“It is that way all the time, all year long,” Johnson said.
Johnson has been the president and Santa for the Saline County Toy Commission for the past 15 years. He oversees about 18 volunteers, and they serve an estimated 250 to 600 kids a year.
“I live to take care of the kids,” Johnson said. “There are so many kids in Saline County that weren’t getting a Christmas at all, until I fired it up.”
Johnson, who lives in Benton, said it is something he is very proud of.
“Me and my crew work at it all year long to make sure it is a success,” Johnson said. “We put out donation boxes at Dollar Generals and other stores — about 25 different places.
“We not only take care of the little bitty kids, but we really want to take care of the special-needs children as well.”
Johnson said when he started the Saline County Toy Commission and the Toy Run, he only had about a four-man motorcycle ride. During last week’s toy run, Johnson said, they had close to 70 motorcycles, plus three or four buses and pickup trucks. He said this year, they collected more than 400 toys.
“It has turned into a big deal,” Johnson said.
“I say it was the best day ever,” Rodriguez said. “I had a blast.”
Judy Stone has worked as the event coordinator for the commission for the past six years.
“There are a lot of needy children in Saline County,” Stone said. “I know there is a high need. I joined full time because we need to take care of our town.
“If nobody else is going to do it, we need to do it.”
She said even though there are needy children all over the world, people are more likely to help a neighbor over a stranger.
“It is important to take care of your own,” Stone said. “I know a couple of businesses that have closed with just a moment’s notice, and many of them have single mothers working there, and that sets them back.
“I can’t help everybody I know, but if people can see that there really is a need, they will go and help these people.”
Stone lives in the Salem community of Benton, and she said it is a very tight-knit community. She said the Walmart Supercenter in Benton, Edwards Food Giant in Bryant and Harvest Foods in Salem were big supporters for this year’s Toy Run.
“The neighbors all come together and help,” Stone said.
Johnson said he got the idea to start the commission after he had a massive heart attack.
“I grew up as a poor kid,” Johnson said. “We were lucky if we got anything, let alone more than one thing, for Christmas.
“My mom and dad tried, but it just couldn’t happen. I had four siblings, my dad was in bad health, and my mom was trying to work to cover it.”
Johnson said he quit high school at 15 years old, and he said as he grew up, he saw more and more trouble that people were having at Christmastime.
“When I had my heart attack, my life just kind of flipped upside down,” Johnson said. “When I hit the ground again, I was looking to the Lord for answers, and this was my calling, because my life has never been the same again.”
This year, the Saline County Toy Commission is housed in a temporary location after the organization had to move from its previous building.
“I was there for eight years after the building was donated to me,” Johnson said. “Two months ago, they evicted me on the spot, saying they had sold the building.”
The organization is currently at 718 East St. in Benton. Johnson said he will begin looking for a new building once the holiday season is over.
“I thank God that it is always a big success every year,” Johnson said. “There are good people in this town — good, caring people who help.
“They are what has kept me going for 15 years — the people of the community and Saline County.”
To apply, families can fill out an application at the commission’s temporary location. Johnson said they have to show proof of income for the month and proof of all outgoing bills and proof that they have children. If the families have less than $500 left after all their bills are paid for the month, they qualify, Johnson said.
“If they have $500 or less at the end of the month, then I help them with Christmas,” Johnson said. “One new tire is between $150 and $400, and if a family vehicle blows a tire out, then there goes their spare money they were counting on for Christmas.”
Johnson said he does this to provide Christmas for those who can’t.
“Every kid should have something under the tree for Christmas,” Johnson said. “Every child deserves a Christmas.
“And so far, I think we have been seeing to that need. We all work very hard to make it a big success every year.”
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or email@example.com.