By Lauren Levenson and Doreen Rekoski
“Papa, can I open my toy now?” exclaimed 9-year-old Kailey as she ran back from playing with the animals at the petting zoo.
The 20th annual Toys For Joy event on Saturday, December 10, transformed El Cajon Valley High School’s gym into a massive toy room. Over 5,200 people attended the event at the El Cajon site. The school’s track turned into a venue for fun with bounce houses, a petting zoo, manicures, haircuts, games, and more! Each child received a toy of their choice; 5,824 toys were distributed throughout the day. Those attending were treated to lunch and 2,500 bags of groceries were distributed to families.
Dale Hughesman, a faithful Rock Church East County attendee, said, “This event is really a blessing. My granddaughter lives with me and doesn’t have a dad, so bringing her out here and getting to watch the kids have fun and pick a gift is truly a blessing.”
In the four years that the East County campus has been open, Hughesman has only missed four services due to medical reasons. He has had many medical complications, ranging from fighting cancer multiple times to dying and being resuscitated three times due to a jet skiing accident years ago. While he has gone through so much, Hughesman has stayed positive. “I believe that God has a plan and purpose for everyone, so I just try to live my life for God to the best of my ability.”
His granddaughter, Kailey, is a bright fifth grader who aspires to be a doctor when she grows up. The proud grandfather said she always puts others before herself and is willing to help in any way that she can despite everything she has gone through. For Kailey, this event was about so much more than a toy; it was a time for her to be a kid and have fun.
“It’s a blessing for all the people who aren’t going to have that good of a Christmas. It lets everyone take their mind off of everyday struggles,” Hughesman said.
Besides the event bringing fun, games, and joy to the community, it also shared the gospel message. As families waited in line to enter the magical toy room, the gospel message was proclaimed at the main stage and translated into Chaldean and Spanish. Thousands of people experienced God’s love and responded to the gospel throughout the four campuses. Hughesman said, “People who don’t usually hear the gospel might hear it for the first time today while they’re being blessed by the event; it really shows God’s love for us.”
One of the attendees, Ariana Velazquez, mother of two boys ages 2 and 4, gave herself a special treat, the pleasure of a manicure, courtesy of Rock Church member and volunteer, Lourdes Lopez. “I like having my nails done,” said Velazquez. “It makes me feel pretty.”
Life has been tough for Velazquez. While in rehabilitation, all the families’ things were stolen. “We had nothing,” she said. She currently lives in the East County Transitional Living Center in El Cajon, a Christian program, and has been there less than a month. She hopes for a new start.
Though she has attended the Rock Church off and on over the years in different locations, this is her first time to bring her children to the Toys for Joy event. “This is Christmas for the kids. Without this there would be nothing for them. It makes me feel good to know my kids are getting a Christmas.”
Volunteer and Rock Church member Cynari Haralson agrees. “It’s all about the kids. This is Christmas for those children whose families can’t afford it. They get everything they need here …toys, lunch, groceries. I love to see their smiling faces.”
Haralson, who has been attending the Rock Church East County since it opened four years ago, had the unenviable task of being one of the Toy Room’s volunteers So excited by all the choices in the room, many young children picked more than one toy, holding two, even three toys as they headed to the exit. To ensure all children had the opportunity to receive a toy, only one toy per child was given. Haralson handled it all with a smile and gentle touch. Haralson shrugged and smiled. “Someone has got to do it.”
Chief of Police Jeff Davis of the El Cajon Police Department said events like Toys for Joy create a sense of community. Chief Davis and Captain Michael Moulton, also of the El Cajon Police Department, helped hand out toys to the children in the Toy Room. The El Cajon Police Department, along with the City of El Cajon, the El Cajon Valley High School and the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Rock Church East County to help make the event possible.
“Toys for Joy brings people of all races, faiths and cultures together because the event focuses on their children,” said Chief Davis. “We are happy to partner with the Rock Church. We recognize how important faith based organizations are to forming a strong sense of community.”
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