NEW BEDFORD — Tomorrow, multiple communities and area police departments will come together to bring holiday joy to SouthCoast children by filling a school bus with unwrapped toys.

The annual Safe Zones Fill the Bus event is taking part in New Bedford, Fairhaven, Dartmouth and Acushnet, with school buses from Tremblay Bus at multiple locations ready to be filled.

"Every year we get bigger and bigger, and the public is coming out more and more to give," said Jerry Pinto, founder and president of Safe Zones, which organizes the event.

The Fill the Bus event first began eight years ago, Pinto said, after he and some friends heard about a similar drive on Cape Cod.

"It bothered me that they said all the toys they collected stay on the Cape," he said. "We said we need to do it here in our area, because that's not fair to all the communities around the Cape."

Pinto says "there's not enough time in the day" to discuss how much of an impact the Fill the Bus event has made in local communities since then.

"I've seen families on the street that we've helped out, and the mom and the dad will always come up and say, 'Thank you, guys,'" he said. "There's so much positive to say about it and how it's affected people in a positive way, not only because we give but because we bring people together. It just brings us all together. We're all on the same page. We're all one community."

Courtesy New Bedford Police

The Safe Zones and New Bedford Police Department school bus will be located at police headquarters at 871 Rockdale Avenue from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Dartmouth Police school bus will be located at Target, 479 State Road, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. And the Acushnet Police and Fire/Rescue school bus will be located at Acushnet Police Headquarters, 64 Middle Road, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

According to Pinto, the toy drive couldn't happen without the cooperation of the police departments, Target, Tremblay Bus, and Beacon Hardware, which donates space for Pinto and his volunteers to sort the toys for distribution.

Pinto said anyone who wants to drop off a donation should bring it in its original packing, and not gift-wrapped. They also ask for no toys or gifts that may promote violence. He also said there's an emphasis this year on gifts that are good for middle school and high school-aged kids.

"There's a huge need for stuff for them," Pinto said, noting they could use gifts such as board games, reading materials and gift cards. "They're the ones that I really see end up going without, because we're so geared to thinking of children from infancy to the sixth grade, and that's what our focus is on when we go to the store to buy stuff."

Pinto said donations of any gift or amount are accepted, and that it's not just about Christmas; he said the organization will also help those in need throughout the year, such as those affected by a fire. He said that while the toy drive has really become a year-round thing, this is his favorite time of the year.

"The most exciting part is to go out to St. Luke's Hospital with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and members of the New Bedford Police Department," he said. "And then the same night, to go out to the neighborhoods with the 'Christmas Bus,' open the back door, and hand each kid that comes a gift--what a feeling. You can't get any better than that."

Through December 24, gifts can also be dropped off at the following police stations:

--Downtown Station, 572 Pleasant Street

--South End Station, 168 Cove Street

--North End Station, 781 Ashley Boulevard

--New Bedford Police Headquarters, 871 Rockdale Avenue

--Dartmouth Police Headquarters, 249 Russells Mills Road

--Fairhaven Police Headquarters, 1 Bryant Lane

--Acushnet Police Headquarters, 64 Middle Road

For more information, contact Pinto at (508) 889-1752.