HAVERHILL — This is the first holiday season in three decades that Ozzie Hardy will not be here to continue his mission to bring Christmas gifts to hundreds of Haverhill kids whose families struggle financially.
Hardy, a former police officer and Santa Claus-like figure to legions of children, passed away in April from heart disease.
Fortunately, his 47-year-old daughter Khristina Hardy has taken over leadership of his organization, known as Ozzie's Kids.
"My dad trained me well, but I'm nervous," Khristina Hardy said. "So many have been reaching out to me with donations that I can confidently say we'll help 1,000 children this Christmas season without a problem. The pressure is there, but I have a great support system with my brothers Tommy and Bobby, my daughter Makayla and our many volunteers."
Hardy started his Ozzie's Kids program in 1988, while serving as the juvenile officer for the Police Department.
He called that pioneering program "I Believe" and that winter he handed out coats, hats and gloves to 25 children in a day care program at Haverhill High. He ran his project out of the old police station in City Hall, with help from City Hall workers.
A total volunteer effort, Ozzie's Kids grew quickly over the years. Hardy and his helpers have been collecting enough donations recently to distribute five to seven toys to about 1,000 children in Haverhill each year.
Khristina Hardy is also getting support from the business community, as Burlington Coat Factory in Haverhill plans an event for this weekend to support Ozzie's Kids.
A "stuff a limo" toy drive will be held Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. at the Burlington Coat Factory in Westgate Plaza.
Please bring new, unwrapped toys for newborns to age 12. All donations will be distributed to children in Haverhill.
After retiring from the force in 2011, Hardy continued to run Ozzie's Kids with help from his children — Tom, Bobby and Khristina — and his granddaughter Makayla, along with the support of his wife Gayle, who died about a month after Ozzie.
Friends volunteered as well and continue to do so.
Gifts are acquired either through donations of unwrapped toys or winter clothing items, or are purchased through monetary donations.
Everything is stored in the basement of City Hall, with the mayor's permission, and all of the gifts are distributed by appointment.
"I've been working with my dad ever since the start," Khristina Hardy said. "When I was 18, I was wrapping gifts in the basement of City Hall and I got more involved over the past 15 years or so — making lists, doing the shopping and helping to coordinate the distribution. Very slowly, like baby steps, my dad was handing it over to me."
Ozzie's Kids held four recent signup days, and the list is expected to grow to 1,000 children.
Each child receives five to seven gifts, including toys and clothing such as winter coats, hats, gloves and other items.
"We try to give them as much as possible," Khristina Hardy said. "All we ask is that they need help, have a child from newborn to age 12, and that they live in Haverhill."
"My dad would tell me, 'I know you can do this, and I know you'll be fine, and I want Ozzie's Kids to carry on,'" she said. "I made the promise, along with my brothers Tommy and Bobby, and now I'm training my daughter Makayla, 23, who has been helping since she could walk."
Distributions begin next week and take place on scheduled pick up days until just before Christmas.
Ozzie's Kids will be holding two Christmas parties in December, with attendees selected by raffle.
For more information about Ozzie's kids, visit Facebook.com/ozzies.kids.