Rivera helping bring Christmas to kids in PR

Cubs catcher, wife organize toy drive as island recovers from two hurricanes

November 21st, 2017
Rene Rivera and his wife, Mariel Perez, said their 4-year-old twin daughters, Julianna and Ivanna, were the inspiration behind the toy drive. (Chicago Cubs)

CHICAGO -- Cubs catcher and his wife, Mariel Perez, know families are struggling to rebuild in their homeland of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and the couple wants to make sure children there get gifts this holiday season.

Rivera and his wife have joined forces with retailers Kmart and Sears to collect 25,000 toys during a toy drive in Miami, Chicago and Arizona, starting Monday. The Riveras will then go to Puerto Rico in mid-December to distribute the gifts.

The initiative is called "That No Child Loses Their Illusion," or "Que Ningun Nino Pierda la Ilusion."

Representatives from Kmart and Sears contacted Rivera about donating Cubs' T-shirts, and they were able to send 25,000 tees to Puerto Rico. The Riveras usually pick some families to help each holiday season, but this year, they decided to expand their efforts.

"We thought, 'Why don't we do something special because of the situation down in Puerto Rico?' I know a lot of parents can't be Santa and can't buy toys for the kids, especially in the areas where the hurricane hit hard," Rivera said.

The companies agreed to help. You can either purchase a toy and leave it in a box that will be outside the participating Kmart and Sears stores, or purchase a $5, $10 or $20 package, which will be added to the gift collection. Rivera said the stores will match the donation. You also can purchase a toy on Amazon.com that will be donated to the effort.

"It's all about toys," Rivera said. "There's no money involved. We're giving toys -- that's what we need, toys.

"It's tough in Puerto Rico," he said. "It's not a good economic situation and with both hurricanes, Irma and Maria, the parents will be spending their money fixing their houses. This is something we can do to keep Christmas alive and give hope to the kids. 'I know it's been a tough situation, but here's Santa to give you a gift.'"

The Riveras have 4-year-old twin daughters, Julianna and Ivanna, and they're the inspiration.

"They're a big reason why we're doing this," Mariel said. "We could have lost our home. It's so hard to explain to children that Santa is not coming. I believe if we help the community now, those kids in the future -- if one decides to do the right thing, we won. It's not an immediate reward. We want to rebuild a better Puerto Rico. We know it's not just construction, it comes from the people."

The Riveras have yet to return to Puerto Rico since the hurricanes hit in September but will go in December, to see family and help distribute the gifts. They're also donating items to the Bayamon baseball club. Rivera was born in Bayamon, located in the northern coastal valley.

"We're still without electricity, but we've got water," Rivera said of his hometown. "We've got a generator that the Cubs helped me with. We can live for a week with that. There are people living for months that way."

Immediately after the hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, Rivera started a GoFundMe page, and is working with the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity. The plan is to help build some homes with the money raised.

The toy drive is different.

"We want to spread the word and try to get everybody involved, donating $5, $10, $20 of toys would be huge for a kid," Rivera said. "You can bring a smile to their faces, and that's what we want to do."