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Dan Appleton’s Toy Story

On the heels of being honored by the county and the city, longtime Mill Valley firefighter continues to deliver the goods for kids during the holiday season.

It’s more than eight months before Southern Marin’s annual Toy and Gift Drive kicks off at the outset of the holiday season, but the driving force behind the 15-year-old event already has it on his mind.

“I’m always thinking about it,” Mill Valley firefighter Dan Appleton says, noting he recently spoke to a local businessman about the possibility of holding a fundraiser for it later this year. “There are always ways to improve the program, and that takes a year-round focus.”

Felecia Gaston, the executive director of the Marin City-based Performing Stars of Marin, which organizes distribution of about half of the more than 600 toys collected throughout Southern Marin each December, says the 51-year-old Appleton’s focus is laser-like.

“I always look forward to his phone call in November,” Gaston says. “He says, ‘It’s that time of year again, Felecia.’ His enthusiasm is low key but he just always makes it happen. And he’s so sweet about it.”

The relationship began 14 years ago when Appleton realized that hundreds of toys hadn’t been picked up at the end of the Marine Corps Reserves Toys for Tots program, which Appleton has participated in for 18 years. As he sought for a place to take them, Appleton was directed to Gaston, who was thrilled to find a home for the toys among some-300 kids, from infants to 10 year olds, all over Southern Marin, including in Marin City, the houseboat community of Sausalito and the Shelter Ridge development in Mill Valley.

“He’s never let up since,” Gaston says.

Appleton, a Northern California native who was born at Marin General Hospital, was honored by both the Marin County Board of Supervisors and the Mill Valley City Council this year for his work with the toy drive. He says his focus on helping kids comes from his parents.

“It’s simple – it’s how I was raised,” he says. “My parents instilled very strong core values in us as kids and for me it was just a natural thing.”

The program has grown so much over the years that it now accommodates both the Toys for Tots and Performing Stars distributions. The first batch – until around mid-December – goes to Toys for Tots, while the second half going to the Performing Stars event. It’s that second date, usually held a few days before Christmas at the Manzanita Recreation Center in Marin City, that frequently reminds Appleton what it’s all about, with hundreds of children showing up to choose a few presents.

“It’s just so great to see the kids grinning from ear to ear looking at these gifts they get,” Appleton says. “That’s a big reason why I do it.”

“Looking at their eyes and having them know that people really care about them – it’s just incredible,” Gaston adds. “It creates such excitement and an adrenaline rush.”

Appleton says the drive has long since expanded beyond the reach of the typical fire department toy drive where boxes are posted outside local fire stations. Appleton says the local drive has about 30 collection sites, including local grocery stores, the community centers, and a number of private businesses.

“It just shows how generous the community is,” he says.

He cites the efforts of Mill Valley Refuse a few years ago when the number of toys being donated grew beyond the storage at the fire station. The company donated a 30-foot storage container for the drive to use each year.

“We fill that thing wall to wall,” he says.

Appleton deflects much of the praise he gets, crediting his fellow firefighters for helping to make the toy drive happen and local residents for never failing to donate.

“Mill Valley residents are the most generous people I’ve known ever since I started Performing Stars,” Gaston says. “Even during this tough economy, Mill Valley always comes through. They’ve been the best neighbors in so many ways.”

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