At the conclusion of last year’s delivery of food and toys to some 850 families — the largest number of families served in the history of the project — Birk announced that he was retiring as Brighter Christmas’ director. On retirement, Birk deserves the thanks of the entire Tracy community for a demanding job well done.
It was in 1978 that Birk, a former U.S. Marine who was chairman of the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots campaign, and Joan Sparks, director of Good Samaritan Community Services’ 2-year-old Brighter Christmas project, joined forces to create the elements of an expanded Brighter Christmas project that has continued to this day. After two years, Birk succeeded Sparks as Brighter Christmas director and continued in the post until this past year.
Although Brighter Christmas activities reach their crescendo in the weeks before Christmas, when recipients are identified and deliveries made, Birk worked with determination throughout the year to round up the toys, turkeys and food to make Christmas brighter for so many families. If donations fell short of the need, he went out and purchased the needed items. And along the way, he was a demon at raising money to finance the program. The annual Brighter Christmas “jail” has been the hallmark of that fundraising effort.
With Birk stepping aside after so many successful Brighter Christmas efforts, it’s encouraging to know that the project will continue under proven leadership. City Councilman Steve Abercrombie, who has agreed to take over the reins of the project, has demonstrated his ability to direct a community project as coordinator of the D.A.R.E. program aimed at steering students away from drugs.
After so many successful years, Birk has moved to the sidelines of Tracy’s Brighter Christmas program, but he leaves an established, well-organized program with a strong tradition of meeting the needs of the community.
Gene Birk may be retired, but we won’t be surprised if a familiar figure wearing a Santa cap makes an appearance at next year’s Brighter Christmas jail.