MIAMI, Okla. — At age 7, Jerry Coach discovered a passion that would direct his life for the next 40 years.
Coach, then a resident of Picher, Oklahoma, told a friend he wanted to play Santa and give toys out to children in need. That friend, Vicki Williams, encouraged him, so for Christmas of 1979, Coach passed out used toys to at least 70 children living in the Picher area.
Fast forward to 2019. This year, Coach plans to give new toys and gifts to more than 500 children living in Ottawa County in Oklahoma, Cherokee County in Kansas and Jasper and Newton counties in Missouri.
“Each year after the 10th anniversary, it kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Coach said. “It’s so rewarding to see the kids smile when you show up with gifts.”
Coach estimates he’s now helped more than 30,000 children over the past 40 years. In some cases, he's even providing gifts for the children and grandchildren of his first participants. He also loves to take items to nursing home residents.
When he began his toy drive all those years ago, he never anticipated it would become his life’s work. It even gave him a reason to keep moving forward when, at age 24, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“This yearly project, working with toy companies and raising money, I never thought it would last for 40 years,” Coach said. “But it did, and it keeps me going.”
Coach relies on donations sent to the Jerry Coach Santa Claus program as well as items provided by toy companies. Every donation given to the program is used to purchase gifts for children.
Help also comes from Chuck Stotts and his team at the Miami Walmart. Coach said Stotts, who works as the manager, has helped him buy toys for years.
Another way he raises funds is to host an eBay auction featuring items given to him by celebrities he has met in his lifetime, including members of the Grand Ole Opry. Two of his newest items for the auction include a signed fiddle from Charlie Daniels and signed memorabilia from Steve Owens.
In the past, Coach has worked long days delivering the gifts. This year, because of his health, he’s asked Ottawa County Sheriff Jeremy Floyd and members of that department to help him host a pizza party for children taking part in the effort. That event is slated for Dec. 23 at the Boys & Girls Club in Miami.
Coach said he will continue to help children as long as his health allows.
“I know I won’t live forever,” he said. “I hope if something happens to me, someone will pick this up and keep it going for as long as they can. It’s a good program and has helped lots of kids.”