KINGSTON — Just last week, two people in need knocked on the door of Kingston Mercantile & Marine, hoping the services from Operation Holiday Starr could assist them.
Toni Houck, founder of Holiday Starr and manager of Kingston Mercantile, sent the two off with a box full of food and bags of necessities to help them brave the cold.
These aren’t the first people Houck has helped this season, and they certainly won’t be the last.
But even Houck couldn’t have predicted she would be the “bag lady” of Kitsap, and it all stemmed from the love of one little dog.
“She was one in 4,000,” Houck described her late pup, Starr. The dachshund with piebald coloring was said to be pretty unique, not only in her pigmented coloring, but in personality.
“She was a real people ambassador,” Houck said. “She brought a lot of love to a lot of people.”
So much so that Starr was invited to go on sleepovers, and literally jumped at the chance to do so.
When the 13-year old happy-go-lucky pup severely damaged her back, jeopardizing her quality of life, in late 2015, Houk was faced with a tough choice.
Starr was pu to sleep. It was devastating for Houck, who decided to do something big in honor of the little pup who brought so much love.
“And I just thought, I’ve got to do something in memory of her,” Houck said. “But I had no idea it would continue.”
She called it Operation Holiday Starr. In fall 2015, Houck put out a call on Facebook and asked friends to donate backpacks and purses. She planned to fill them with necessary items and give them to people in need.
Her goal was to get 50 backpacks and purses by Thanksgiving. She reached her goal within the first week and finished with more than 200.
“Every day, I was taking home a Durango full of purses,” Houck said.
They collected so many bags that her boyfriend, Andy Prader, hung doors from the basement ceiling to use as suspended shelves so they could organize them all.
From there they set out to Seattle, making an eight-hour trip gifting the bags to those in need as they walked down side streets, alleyways and parks.
“It’s the smile on people’s faces,” she said as she recalled the reaction of a Seattle homeless man. “He said, ‘I lost my baseball cap four months ago and I’ve wanted one ever since …’ Something so simple brought a smile to his face.”
This season, Houck is operating a little differently. Along with her lofty goal of collecting 600 bags, she’s decided to reach out closer to home as well.
“There’s a huge homeless population in Seattle, but there’s a huge homeless population in Kitsap, too,” she said. “Right here in our backyard, these people need help. This is a way for local people to do something good for local people. It’s a beautiful thing.”
So far, they’ve taken two carloads of bags to Bremerton — 25 backpacks filled with jackets, jeans, toiletries and hand warmers to West Sound Tech, and 150 packs to Kitsap Rescue Mission. A truckload of donations were gifted by Target employees, dog food was donated by Country Pet Shoppe and four boxes were donated by Washington State Ferries.
“There are kids out there, too, without any jackets. It’s just heart-breaking,” she said. “The bottom line is, one of us ever expect to be homeless. We’re all just two or three paychecks away. If that happened to me, I would be right there alongside them. They’re just down on their luck.”
As Houck sifted through thousands of donated items in the 800-square-foot space above Kingston Mercantile, she sorted shampoos, conditioners, lotions, hand warmers, toothbrushes, soaps, jackets, scarves, hats and gloves; and boxes of bags, purses and backpacks left to fill. Tears welled in her eyes as “Little Drummer Boy” played softly in the background.
“In my warm little bubble, I never really knew the extent of it,” she said. “Even if you just touch one person … I want to reach out, touch people, and hug them. I want them to know they’re important. I want them to feel special and feel good about themselves. Isn’t that why we’re here to help each other? We can all be that person … I hope they know that Kitsap cares.”
Even though Christmas has passed, Houck still plans to drop-offs in Seattle and Kitsap. She and her team is set to make another deliver to the Seattle area on Jan. 7. Shortly after, she’s planning for another stop in Kitsap to continue to share the love.
“This stuff needs to get to people that need it. I can get it to the right people,” she said. “I’m so grateful for all of the help I get from people in this town. I couldn’t do it without the support of my friends and family.”
“The Kingston Mercantile & Marine will be accepting donations all year round, and drop offs are always welcome,” Houck said.
“Who knew an animal could make a such a difference?” Houck asked. “I look at what I’m doing now, all in the name of one little dog.”