What: Willow Rose’s Country for the Kids Toy Drive
When: December 3rd, 6:30 p.m.
In Lawrence, country music and the holidays go hand-in-hand. That’s because one country musician has spent years going big for the holiday. Every December, Ryan Manuel becomes a Father Christmas of sorts, corralling the community for children in the hospital with Willow Rose’s Country for the Kids Toy Drive. Now in its third year, the event is learning to navigate COVID obstacles to keep bringing cheer to kids in need.
Manuel knows firsthand how miserable spending the holidays in a hospital can be. His niece Willow Rose Manuel (the event’s namesake) spent two Christmases in the hospital fighting an aggressive kidney tumor. “I’ve seen firsthand how illness effects families at the holidays, especially when they’re confined to a hospital,” he says. “I felt the need to step up and help make their holidays a little better.”
Previously, the annual event was held at the Bottleneck and featured raffles and auctions of anything from guitars to gift baskets. Last year, it felt like there wasn’t enough room for all the gift baskets and raffle items. Tables lined every usable space of the Bottleneck, and folks were eagerly outbidding each other. Last year, they raised $7,000 (easily surpassing their first-year donation of $4,000).
This year, like many live music events, Willow Rose’s Country for the Kids Toy Drive is going online. The livestream will feature performances from some of the top country musicians in the scene, including Megan Luttrell and Rex Pryor of Exit 13. “I’m not trying to set unrealistic expectations, with COVID still surging and wreaking havoc on the live music industry and people’s income,” Manuel admits. “I’m just hoping that people will tune in, spread the word, and contribute what they can, or donate toys to our drop boxes.” Those dropboxes will be set up at a few locations across town, including at Sunflower Canine, both Jefferson’s Locations, the 23rd Street Starbucks location, and the Commissary on Haskell. Folks can also donate directly to https://support.childrensmercy.org/willowrose.
The yearly event has been extra personal for Manuel lately. His niece passed away from her cancer last year, and he feels the toy drive is a great way to remember her legacy and keep her name alive. “On a larger scale, it’s important to help the kids in our local communities have a little respite from the reality of being in the hospital and having to go through some very challenging times,” he confides. “The gifts and money we donate seem to make a big difference in their holiday season and that just makes me feel good.”
Manuel also feels musicians have certain roles they can step into during the pandemic. “I think that pandemic has proven we all help our respective followers and local community stay sane… as a musician, I believe that if you’re someone worth following, then you should have things that are bigger than you to work towards that your local, and hopefully larger, following can stand for and work towards you with,” he says. “Whether it be racial/gender/LGBTQ equality, helping the less fortunate or homeless population, or giving toys to sick kids, hopefully as someone with a platform that people literally listen to, you’re giving people something positive to vie for, and to build on that brings people together. We have to remember, we’re more similar than we are different, and if we treat each other with empathy and compassion, great things can and will happen.”
Willow Rose’s Country for the Kids Toy Drive takes place on December 3rd at 6:30 p.m. You can watch the livestream on the event’s official Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/CFTKLawrence and learn more about how to donate here: https://support.childrensmercy.org/fundraiser/3034259
Fally Afani is an award-winning journalist with a career spanning more than two decades in media. She has worked extensively in radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and more. Currently, she resides in Lawrence, Kansas, where she works as a music journalist and is the Editor of I Heart Local Music.