BELLEROSE — In 1982, a Brooklyn bus driver was distraught, having scrimped and saved to buy toys for his kids, only to lose them in a burglary just a few days before Christmas.
But whoever perpetrated this crime set in motion a chain of events that helps bring Christmas joy each year to thousands of needy children.
Now in its 40th year, the annual toy collection for Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens was held Saturday, Dec. 10, in the auditorium of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy of Bellerose.
The master of ceremonies was the event’s founder — Don Costello, a retired lieutenant of the New York City Police Department. He was the cop who, in December 1982, came to the bus driver’s home on Flatlands Avenue to take a report on the burglary.
“He was crying,” Costello recalled about the bus driver during a break from emcee duties. “Everything from [under] the tree was gone, including two bikes.”
Costello said he quickly made calls to round up some toys for the man. Ultimately, he replaced the gifts with his own money.
“Then,” he added, “I went back to my friends, and I said, ‘Next year we’ll have a party, and everybody will bring a toy to get in.’ We started out with about 80 people, and as you see here tonight, we have about 400-500 people. It worked out well.”
Christmas revelers, including longtime supporters of the event, filled the auditorium to partake of refreshments, raffles, loaded hero sandwiches, music, and dancing. Each partyer paid the price of admission — a toy for a needy child. Many brought multiple gifts in bags bursting with dolls, toy dinosaurs, balls, race cars, and books.
Costello received countless hugs, handshakes, and kind words for his devotion to this Christmas cause. CCBQ has also honored him for the shared partnership.
In 2018, the charity awarded him the Ubi Caritas Award. According to the commendation, the accolade is given “for distinguished, unselfish support of human services as a reminder that true charity is the response of the human heart to God’s love for all people.”
CCBQ spokeswoman Lucy Garrido-Mota noted that Costello’s contributions are among many that help families in the diocese ensure their children have joyous holidays.
“Don’s party is one source of toys,” she said. “Many parishes and local businesses participate, and are generous in their own way. We can’t do this without them.”
She said CCBQ expects to serve more than 2,000 children this year. Among them are immigrants from South American countries like Venezuela who were bussed to New York City the past few months from the border with Mexico.
“He is so good to us,” Garrido-Mota said of Costello. “Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens is humbled to be a conduit for his generosity, bringing hope to children and families during the Christmas season.”
Costello is quick to credit helpers, many of them are old friends from the NYPD.
Others are from the neighborhood where he grew up, Queens Village, such as Pat Carragee, a businessman who passed away two years ago.
At Saturday’s event, Costello gave Carragee’s family a plaque recognizing his “behind-the-scenes” work helping to make each year’s toy collection a success.
Numerous other longtime helpers received plaques Saturday night, including Costello’s wife, Laura, and sister, Patricia Poslett. But many said that without Costello, the annual event would not exist.
First, he makes the rounds of businesses, securing donations for raffle prizes. Then, right before the party, he oversees setting up the venue and then the clean-up after everybody goes home.
Finally, Costello takes the toys to Catholic Charities offices on the Monday after each Saturday-night party. He delivers the toys in a huge rented cargo truck.
Laura Costello said this work starts in July. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” she said.
“Once it’s over, he doesn’t know what to do with his hands anymore,” she added. “But it’s wonderful getting together with friends.”
People at Saturday’s party came from all over the U.S. — Florida, Georgia, and both North and South Carolina — because they grew up or worked with Costello and want to keep the tradition alive.
“It’s something we must continue doing,” Laura Costello said. “There’s a long list of families in need. And how can you stop a child from having Christmas? So he’s very, very busy. I’m very proud of my husband.”
Poslett agreed: “My brother is the best.”
“My mom brought us up to care for people who need things,” she said. “And we’re all very proud of Don and how he has organized this wonderful Christmas party every year.”
Now in his 70s, Costello is tall and powerfully built. Still, he admits, “This year has been a little bit tough” due to his two artificial knees and hips, which Costello said has him moving slower. “WD-40 is my sponsor!” he exclaimed.
“After this, I still have a lot more to do, to clean up, and everything else. That’s physically tough on me, but we get it done,” he said.
Each year, he draws inspiration from an episode that happened in the early years of the toy collection.
Costello explained that he typically is not around when children receive the toys.
But on this occasion, he was asked to bring some toys to a breakfast hosted by Catholic Charities at a restaurant in lower Manhattan.
It was bitterly cold, about 5-10 degrees, he recalled. But when he arrived, he noticed a few children waiting for toys. A mother sat next to him and shared that her little boy wanted only a basketball for Christmas.
“I knew I brought about six basketballs, but I didn’t put the gift packages together,” Costello said. “Santa Claus came out, and I saw him with the little boy. He reached into his bag, and I’m saying, ‘Please, let it be a basketball.’ ”
It was. “The mother turned to me crying, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ ” Costello recalled. “I’ll be honest — I keep thinking of that story. It revitalizes me to keep going.”