Getting into the Christmas spirit has been a struggle for Elizabeth Gutierrez Ramirez, her husband Juan and her 5-year-old daughter, Julianna. Just three weeks ago, they lost their toddler Bella, Julianna’s 3-year-old sister, to Leigh syndrome.
On Saturday, December 12, however, the family was all smiles as they celebrated during Rock Church’s 19th annual Toys for Joy at Lincoln High and Porter Elementary schools in southeast San Diego. The smiles turned to laughter when they discovered they had a winning bicycle raffle ticket. “It was a blessing,” said a grateful Elizabeth Ramirez, who said it has been difficult to stay positive and motivated for her 5-year-old, who chose a training bike with Disney’s “Frozen” motif. “We’re trying to raise our spirits more because of the holidays, so this was a blessing to her. Taking Julianna out today kept our minds busy and not thinking too much about losing our daughter.”
The free multi-site event, which is a coordinated effort of Rock Church, community churches, private sponsors and city agencies, seeks to provide toys, food, clothing and other services -- as well as a day of family fun -- to those who are in financial need. The experience was held this year in central San Diego, North County, East County and South County. Over 4,000 volunteers rejoiced at the four locations Sunday when they viewed a video of the statistics of the previous day: 20,023 in attendance, including 766 special needs kids and families, 22,827 toys collected, 3,042 responses to the gospel message, 840 haircuts and 1,568 manicures.
Joining in on the fun and passing out toys at the Lincoln site were city leaders Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, Fire Chief Brian Fennessy, City Councilmember Myrtle Cole and former City Council President Tony Young.
“We want to thank all the community leaders and the mayor,” said Rock Church Pastor Miles McPherson, “because they partner with us every year in all the things we do around San Diego.”
“It is even bigger and better than last year,” said Cole, holding back tears. “To see these children, these youth, it warms your heart and it makes you grateful that we’re so blessed.”
Faulconer congratulated the volunteers for their efforts. “I’m so proud of you,” he said. “You represent the best of San Diego. The fabric of our city is when our community groups and our churches come together to help out, to give back.”
In the past, families waited as early as 5 p.m. the previous day to be able to enter the venue first. One family held the coveted position for the past few years but this year, the Fernandez family was first in line, having claimed their spot Thursday evening, two days before the opening. The Spring Valley family willingly braved the 19 mph winds, scattered showers and 46 degree lows to have the first pick in the Toy Room. “Last year we were in the back of the line so we decided to come earlier,” said 30-year-old Diego, a landscaper who acknowledged that the family-friendly event also helps provide financially for five children and six grandchildren. “We came to have a good time and spend it together. It relieves a little stress and they get to pick something they want.”
Guest families who attended the event were cheered and welcomed every step of the way through the venue, beginning with the gospel stage, where they were entertained with talented young percussionists from Jr. Crew, and heard a biblical message of hope. From there, many participants asked for prayer, received free Bibles or prayed to receive Christ as their savior, beginning a new life of hope. "They let the kids know it’s not just about Christmas or Santa Claus, it’s about Jesus,” said 31-year-old Nyemia Heyward, who came with her three daughters, Makayla, 9, Nevaeh, 4, and Endya, 16 months. “That was one of my favorite (parts).”
Children and parents were then admitted into the celebrated Toy Room, stacked high with toys to delight children from two to teen. Once each child was satisfied with his or her choice, families made their way to the field for lunch, entertainment and activities such face painting, crafts, storytelling and, of course, the anticipated bike raffles. On the field, the Schultz Family Foundation provided more than 5,000 books. Volunteer Stephanie Godfrey reported that a thankful grandmother told her, “I may not be able to repay you for what you’ve done, but God will.”
Also on the field, beautification services such as haircuts and fingernail painting were available. The next stop for families was the clothing room, which organizer Marce Hanson said had received some incredible donations, many of them new. She added there were looks of disbelief when they were each given a trash bag to fill with free clothing.
“A lot of these kids never get anything new,” observed Hanson. “They like toys; toys are wonderful, but (clothing) helps them fit in at school.”
She saw many wonderful moments that day, such as the little boy who found a jacket and wouldn’t take it off, and another who found a shirt with his favorite football team. “He had a Charger bolt painted on his face and was clutching a football with a Charger emblem,” explained Hanson. “When I held up a Charger shirt for him, his little brown eyes just lit up, but in a real quiet voice he looked at me and said, ‘Can I really have that?’ His statement just grabbed my heart because that is what our giveaway is all about – saying, ‘Yes, you can have what we have here, no strings attached!’”
A featured section of the venue was the special needs area, where children with disabilities received the same benefits of the day on a smaller, less overwhelming scale. If they were able to cope, they were assigned a Tour Buddy to take them to the toy or clothing rooms. Elizabeth Amaro walked slowly through the toy room with her 12-year old son, Isai, holding his hand. In his other he clutched a set of sport balls. “My son was born developmentally delayed with chromosome 15, and he’s really excited when he comes on this day,” she explained. “Thank you guys for everything.”
Participants left the event exhausted, laden with not only toys and clothes but also with 1-2 bags of groceries, depending on family size. Volunteers also left fatigued and weary but posting on Facebook that they were full of the same joy they gave out.
For McPherson, this is his favorite part of the event: “Seeing a lot of people help a lot of people.”
To read the story about Alice’s handmade dolls click here.