Beginning in August, Bunchy Gertner puts aside her social life, her needs and even her great-grandchildren to head over to the “North Pole,” the place where she stores, wraps and distributes thousands of toys destined for foster care children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
“This is top banana,” said Gertner referring to the nonstop volunteer work she has done for the past 16 years. “Every kid will get a gift and — even if it’s just for a moment — they will know that someone cares.”
It’s Gertner who dedicates her time to planning and execution of the toy drive that will distribute 3,400 gifts to the children under Our Kids, a non-profit agency that provides foster care and related services in Miami and the Florida Keys.
“She focuses solely on the toy drive and lives to match the right toy with the right child,” said Fran Alegra, Our Kids CEO. “I don’t have staff that would be able to dedicate the time that she gives to this.”
Over the years, 78-year-old Gertner has not only given every foster child a gift, but she has made sure that everyone receives a good quality, age appropriate present.
“I think I have 3,400 children,” said Gertner. “Thank God I didn’t give birth to all of them and they’ve all left the house. But I feel like they’re all mine.”
Gertner has even made it her mission to look after the children who are aging out of foster care and are considered independent living. For these teens, she prepared a gift that includes a comforter, sheets, pillow cases, hand towels, bath towels, glass wear, pillows, dishes, pots and pans.
“They have no money when they leave foster care,” said Gertner. “I give them what a mom and dad would give a child who was going off to college or going off on their own.”
In order to raise money and collect presents, Gertner has relied on about 50 sponsors, who are responsible for collecting gifts. She distributes the first names of children with their age, gender and ethnicity to provide each child with an appropriate gift.
“I became a beggar. I got down on my hands and knees and begged everyone that I met,” said Gertner. “I write letters, I make phone calls and ask if they would want to help or if they know anyone who would want to do it.”
Once she receives the gifts from the sponsors, they are taken to her North Pole, which this year is an empty store donated by Gulfstream Park.
There, she sorts the presents that come with a specific child’s name by agency and begins wrapping the gifts that she receives with no specific name.
“I couldn’t do it alone,’’ said Gertner, who refers to her helpers as elves. “If it weren’t for the people helping me wrap and the sponsors, I wouldn’t have a toy drive.’’
On any given 10-hour work day, the volunteers, which range in numbers from a handful to two dozen, show up to wrap and sing holiday songs.
“This is better than staying at home in bed all day,” said Rivly Breus, a student at Florida Atlantic University. With a little experience under her belt from wrapping at Macy’s, Breus decided to Google a way she could volunteer her talents.
“It was hard for me growing up so it’s good to be able to shine a light on others,” Breus said.
Some come with no experience, like Gonzo Gonzalez, who often has to patch the spaces where he didn’t use sufficient paper.
“I didn’t have it easy growing up, but at least I had my parents,” said Gonzalez, who wrapped about 30 footballs on a recent Sunday. “It’s good to be able to give back. The kids who don’t have parents are not expecting anything.”
Although, Gertner does not give the presents directly to the children for privacy reasons, she is satisfied with knowing that there is a child at the end of every present. She said she will continue to do it until she can’t anymore.
“I know in my heart that what I do is enough,” said Gertner. “When I go to bed I know that I have fulfilled my mission and done my job well.”