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20 Years of Hope
By Shawn Maree McCowan

“It’s Merry Christmas Day!” shouted 7-year-old Gilbert.

It wasn’t quite December 25, but for Gilbert and thousands of other children, it may as well have been.  It was Saturday, December 10, 2016, the day of the 20th annual Toys for Joy sponsored by Rock Church.

Senior Pastor Miles McPherson began Toys for Joy in 1996, and the humble outreach that started 20 years ago has exploded into four sites countywide: Lincoln High School, El Cajon Valley High School, San Marcos High School and Southwest High School. 

Along with five Rock Church campuses, dozens of sponsors, community partners, local business and local churches participate to make the event a success.  In all, 25,410 toys, 312,500 articles of clothing, 12,000 bags of groceries were handed out to deserving families.

“Thank you, Rock Church, thank you to all the volunteers for making this happen year after year,” said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. “People do it because they love each other, they love this city and that’s what today is all about -- helping out and giving back.”

“People do it because they love each other, they love this city and that’s what today is all about -- helping out and giving back.”

Each year, the experience brings hope during a financially stressful time for 1 in 5 San Diego families living in poverty, many of whom arrived the day before the event and slept outside overnight.  

After hearing a gospel message and receiving toys, families are served a hot dog lunch and are entertained with song and dance while awaiting bike raffles. Other activities include inflatables, face painting, free books and haircuts, balloons, nail painting, and arts and crafts. Families also receive free clothing and groceries.

Giving back

“The reason this event is so important to us is because at one point in our lives, we were so poor, broke, and were on the receiving end of Christmas toys for our daughter,” said Nasser Jones, administrator for Groups and Life Class at Rock Church. 

Now, he says, there is an additional benefit to serving as a family.  “I’m always looking for excuses to hang out with my kids, and as they get older, it gets less and less cool to hang out with dad,” Nasser joked.

Elizabeth Espinoza, 29, was first in line at Lincoln High School at 11 a.m. Friday with her five children, and has attended for the past three years. “This is the only day the whole family gets together, to come here,” she said.

Usiel Soto, 11, left toy room with a huge grin, lugging a huge 2,179 piece Lego set, the most sought-after toy year after year.  “The first year I came here I got a mini [Lego] set and I did not like it, but this year I got this big set so I’m so happy,” he said. “So every year I’m going to come here.”

Kiki, 20, walked a few blocks to bring his siblings Senia, 3, Kysean, 7, and Superior, 9, who was celebrating his birthday.  The boys chose Lego sets, while Senia picked a Care Bear. 

“It’s all for them,” said Kiki, adding that their mother was asleep when they left at 7 a.m.  “It was either me or nothing.  My mom came last year, and there really wasn’t much left, because we came at 10. We got there early this year.”

Bringing healing to the community

In addition, as 4,494 volunteers worked together to serve their communities, McPherson said the multicultural event was a visual example of how to bring healing to racial tensions that have recently rocked the city.

“A lot of times all we see is division and we don’t see unity,” said McPherson.  “Unity is possible, and it happens more often than we think. There’s people from all over the world, from all nationalities here, in all four locations, serving people from all nationalities, and everybody’s going to get along.

“If we can practice being the family of God and get together with people who don’t look like us, even in the church context, that’s going to translate to when we’re at work and when we’re on the softball field,” continued McPherson.  “We have to model that because we represent heaven and we represent the people who claim to be going to heaven, so let’s live like heaven now.”

Mikel Homa was among the alumni invited to attend the 20th anniversary celebration at Lincoln High School, and remembers being at the very first Toys for Joy.

“We started with very little budget, a handful of volunteers,” said Homa, who now pastors a church in Hemet.  “Now you’re talking four locations. I heard today there’s over 4,000 volunteers; that’s incredible.”

Volunteers go the distance

Volunteers even travel from other states, just to serve at the event. 

Andre Edward and his fiancée Christina Mendoza began serving at Toys for Joy three years ago, and are now engaged. The couple flew in from Portland, Oregon, as they have for the past three years now, to serve.

“This was one of my first opportunities to ever serve,” said Andre, “and it was Christina who was the driving force behind getting us involved in Toys for Joy.”

Andre serves in Medical, and Christina helps with Miracle 139, which serves the families of children with special needs. 

“We work throughout the day to provide a safe space for our special needs kids and their families,” said Christina.  “It’s an amazing experience and I’m glad to serve San Diego and to bring pervasive hope to this city. We plan on making this a tradition.”

Jeroma Taylor said that her two children Deluna, 9, and Mailei, 14, look forward to picking out their toys each year.  “Even though it’s not wrapped they still go, ‘Ok, now you have to wrap it.’  They know it’s for Christmas, and they know what it is, but grandma’s still got to wrap it so it can go under the tree.” She hesitated, adding, “It’s been hard these last couple years, so if there’s other stuff under there, they just add it.”

Though the toys are the main draw, Taylor said her children also like the prayer line.  “Most kids don’t ask for prayer, and my kids enjoy that.”