2019 Person of the Year

Police detective is a real-life Santa

Det. Patrick Franzone is Freeport's Santa Claus


Freeport native Patrick Frazone is as close to a real-life Santa Claus as it gets. For the past 26 years, he has collected thousands of toys to donate to children in need. Each year he leads the village’s largest toy drive, Toys for Freeport Tots. His mission, he said, is to ensure that every local child has a joyful Christmas morning.

“If I can help a family make their child’s Christmas that much better,” Franzone said, “then I’m happy to do so.”

Franzone, 52, grew up in south Freeport and graduated from Freeport High School in 1985. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, and by 1990 he was a member of the Freeport Police Department. He is now a detective.

After leaving the Marines, Franzone volunteered for the corps’ annual Toys for Tots drive. Working for the Police Department, he saw firsthand the struggles of many local families to afford gifts for their children. In 1997 he decided to host a local toy drive for them.

For all of his efforts on behalf of local children, the Herald Leader is proud to names Franzone its 2019 Person of the Year.

There have been times when Freeport police officers, aware of families in need, have rung a family’s doorbell, left toys on the stoop and hurried off before the door opened. They call it “ring and run,” said Erin Urbanski, a former police officer and a Toys for Freeport Tots volunteer. “We’re able to — thank God — address community needs,” Urbanski added.

Since its inception, Franzone’s drive has grown exponentially. Sponsors, he said, include current and retired police officers, the Freeport Police Benevolent Association, the Helm bar in south Freeport, the Chamber of Commerce, the Freeport Yacht Club, Montana Brothers Pizzeria and the Freeport Community Development Agency. With their help, Franzone raised more than $30,000 to buy toys this year. That’s not counting the toys donated by Freeporters and the money raised through the sale of raffle tickets. Fundraising is a year-round effort, and very dollar goes to the cause, according to Franzone.

When his 19-year-old son Kyle died of microcephaly, a condition in which the head and brain are smaller than normal, Franzone started Kyle Fest to memorialize him. Kyle died in 2009, after much-needed spinal surgery that was intended to correct a severe curvature of his spine that caused other body parts to crush his lungs.

Kyle Fest was held every summer until 2018, and this year, with the help of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce, it was transformed into A Taste of Freeport. The event helps raise a large portion of the money to buy toys.

Franzone works closely with the Archer Street, Bayview Avenue, Columbus Avenue and Leo F. Giblyn elementary schools and Caroline G. Atkinson Intermediate School to ensure that all low-income families receive an invitation to attend the toy giveaway, which is held the week before Christmas at the Freeport PBA. This year, on Dec. 19, roughly 500 parents stood in line outside the PBA to receive bags of toys for their children.

PBA President Shawn Randall noted that Franzone took the national Toys for Toys event and made it about Freeport. “He really found out who were the neediest in our community and really hit it on a personal level,” Randall said. “What he does is 150 percent for the drive that we do. Just look outside and see.”

In a single day, Franzone and volunteers gave out thousands of toys — Barbies, Hot Wheels, dolls, basketballs, soccer balls, Nerf guns, bicycles — as well as winter coats. Family members who waited were served a light breakfast and hot chocolate.

Nina Sasso, a social worker at Atkinson Intermediate, said that Franzone’s work extends beyond the toy drive. “As far as I’m concerned,” Sasso said, “he makes a difference in the lives of our children every single day.”

In 2018, a student needed hearing aids. Sasso, who has worked with Franzone for the past 17 years, said she called him to let him know. On the day of the child’s doctor’s appointment, it was snowing, and her parents had no way to get her there, so Franzone picked her up and took her to the appointment to get her hearing aids. He pledged to pay for all of the medical expenses and the cost of hearing aids until the student turns 21.

“He just took care of it,” Sasso said. “There’s nothing that I can’t call him for that he doesn’t say, ‘Give me a minute, I’ll get it on.”

Franzone is now developing a voucher program for children in need of eyeglasses. And he has donated musical instruments to Freeport High School and Atkinson Intermediate.

When the Atkinson cheerleading team was competing in the national championship at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Sasso said, Franzone covered the expenses for the students who couldn’t afford the trip.

Elizabeth Biscotti, an Archer Street School social worker who has worked with Franzone for 11 years, said she has seen the impact he has had on her students and their families. The holidays, Biscotti said, can be a particularly difficult time for families who are facing home displacement, job loss or the death of a loved one.

“His support means the world to me,” she said. “It warms my heart and makes me grateful. I’m one person, and I can’t help them all on my own, but to have the help of the community is amazing.”

“His work is top-notch,” said Freeport Police Detective Sgt. Donnie Ethier. “He handles our toughest cases, but also is always reaching out to the community.”

According to Ethier, when Franzone found out about a family in distress during the holidays, he brought them bags of groceries, but told no one what he had done. “It just needed it to be done,” Ethier said.

Assistant Chief Ray Horton said Franzone is the “go-to guy” to tackle the toughest problems, but he’s also all about teamwork. “He doesn’t want it to be about one person,” Horton said. “It’s about the community.”

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Franzone provided thousands of toys to children in need throughout Freeport. Then, when Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle in 2018, Sean Coyle, a former Freeport resident who is now a Seminole County sheriff, alerted Franzone about a food and clothing collection there. Franzone jumped into action, organizing a toy drive in Freeport.

“I just want people to know that what I do comes from my heart,” he said.