What started off as a small event to help some families in need at Christmas has grown into a SouthCoast holiday tradition, and it's only getting bigger and better each year.

The 7th Annual Safe Zones Fill the Bus Toy Drive is taking place this coming Saturday, as the organization teams up with police departments in New Bedford, Acushnet, Dartmouth and Fairhaven to collect toys for local children and families that can't afford gifts.

When Safe Zones founder Jerry Pinto began the Fill the Bus event six years ago, he never expected the annual toy drive to reach the level it has.

"No, not at all," Pinto told WBSM News. "When I actually partnered up with the police departments, it just went its own way, and each year it grows and grows. We pick up a new partner each year, a new store, and it's just incredible."

Pinto said it's his goal each year to add a new store or police department to his roster of participants.

"This year, my coworker's wife works at Toys R Us, so this year on December 16th, there's going to be a school bus there also," he said. "We accomplished that goal, which means we're going to be able to help more people."

Safe Zones also works with Walmart, Target and Tremblay Bus for the drive, which has become a staple for holiday giving all over the greater New Bedford area.

"They're starting to notice it's not just New Bedford, and when they see we are all tied together, the same organization, they see a unity between the towns and the city," Pinto said. "Basically, a city of one is what we all look like."

Once all the donations are in, the toys are split up and distributed among the communities. Pinto will help deliver the gifts in Dartmouth and in New Bedford, and said that in the city, it has expanded from one night of gift delivery to two nights and an afternoon.

"The need is out there," he said. "It's not just about the folks that don't have jobs, and are down on their luck, but also the working families, too. Just because you're working doesn't mean that you're living (an extravagant lifestyle). You're still struggling, you still have the ability to pay for things for your kids, for food and clothing and every day expenses, but Christmas is just a little more of a burden on the financial end. We just want to be there to help those families out."

For those wondering what to donate, Pinto said he likes to keep the focus on toys and games that will bring families together and keep them active.

"Family-engaged games, activities where it involves movement of the body," he said. "I push away from any toys that promote any type of violence. We just want the kind of stuff that pulls the family together, that element we're missing in the home today because of video games, the internet, stuff like that."

Pinto said it's especially hard to provide gifts for older kids, because most people donate with younger children in mind.

"So we encourage people to bring the footballs, bring the basketballs, bring the board games and books for middle school and high school kids," he said.

In addition to working with police and the New Bedford Housing Authority, Safe Zones has also partnered up with some city schools, working with the principals and guidance counselors who know the families that need help the most. They're also teaming up this year with the New Bedford District Court probation department to reach some more people that can use the help.

"Just remember, it could be you, it could be your cousin, it could be your kids one day that may need that handout or that help," Pinto said. "And it's not just for people that have nothing. It's for the people that just need to provide the basic things for their kids for Christmas."

Pinto said the Fill the Bus drive shows every year that sometimes it feels even better to give than to receive.

"I'm looking forward to working with everybody, the unity, all the smiles we're going to bring to people's faces," he said. "And to kind of take the negativity of the world that's going on out of their minds for a little while."

Here are a list of some of the locations and times where you can bring a new, unwrapped toy to help Fill the Bus this Saturday:

--The Fairhaven Police Department's School Bus will be located at Walmart, 42 Fairhaven Common Way, Fairhaven, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

--The Dartmouth Police Department's School Bus will be located at Target, 479 State Road, Dartmouth, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Two departments have moved their participation to next Saturday, December 16:

--The Safe Zones & New Bedford Police Departments School Bus will be located at 871 Rockdale Ave., New Bedford, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

--The Acushnet Police & Fire\Rescue Department's School Bus will be located at the Acushnet Police Department, 64 Middle Rd, Acushnet, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

In addition, gifts can also be dropped off through December 21 at the following police stations:

--New Bedford downtown station, 572 Pleasant St.

--New Bedford South End station, 168 Cove St.

--New Bedford North End station, 781 Ashley Blvd

--New Bedford Police headquarters, 871 Rockdale Ave.

--Dartmouth Police Department, 249 Russells Mills Road

--Fairhaven Police Department, 1 Bryant Lane, Fairhaven

--Acushnet Police Department, 64 Middle Road

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