SARASOTA -- When Keegan Koga opened his tattoo parlor in 2011, he had $30 in the bank.
At the time, Koga said he was stressed beyond belief. He said he also knew he wanted to help the less fortunate when he got the ability to do so.
"I knew we had to have something to remind us why we had to be thankful, just for the fact we had families and are able to do what we loved to do," said Koga, who owns Trap Ink Tattoos, 5131 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota.
For the past several Christmases, Koga has given back to the community through the Rudolph Red Nose Express, an annual Christmas toy drive in partnership with Volunteer Manatee. On Christmas Eve, his tattoo parlor, as it has for the past couple years, will transform into a Winter Wonderland as Santa Claus hands out presents to some of the community's neediest families.
Never miss a local story.
"Sometimes it's really not their fault that they are struggling that hard to be able to provide that Christmas," Koga said, adding the heartfelt thanks from families makes the toy drive worth it.
Families are referred to Koga through local nonprofit organizations or are people they heard of personally, Koga said, adding they are all prescreened to ensure they are in need.
Last year, the toy drive provided about 40 families with gifts, and this year, Manasota Gun Traders members will bring toys to donate at the Christmas dinner at the Bradenton Yachtsea Grille at 6 p.m. Thursday. Koga said he expects up to 300 people to attend the dinner.
"They wanted it to go to a local organization where they could see where the presents are going," Koga said, adding they take photographs of the people receiving the gifts to share with donors.
Over the years, Koga's 8-year-old daughter, Kali, has helped pick out the toys for the children, even forgoing some toys of her own for the less fortunate.
"I love her passion for it," Koga said. "It makes me super happy. It makes me feel like I'm doing something right. It's something we look forward to every year."
As he has the last few years, owner Jerry Adams of Adams Family Pawn Shop in Bradenton will dress as Santa to hand out gifts to the children on Christmas Eve.
"I enjoy the Christmas season for one, and for No. 2, I enjoy seeing kids' faces, especially kids that don't get much for Christmas," Adams said.
Adams remembers bringing toys to where a young burn victim lived the first year he participated in this toy drive.
"When I walked in. She just lit up," he said. "She was just overjoyed with seeing Santa. These are the reasons that I do what I do when I see the kids. It gives me joy to see them happy. I'm giving back that way."
Toys can be dropped off at Trap Ink Tattoos. Koga said they are also accepting blankets, canned and boxed foods and gift cards for the families.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.