The rules of the day for the Toys for Joy celebration were clear: One toy for each of the thousands of children who came to Lincoln High School and neighboring Porter Elementary to celebrate Christmas early. Not everyone got the message, at first.
When one family reached the Toy Room’s exit, with two toys per child, the children were reminded they could keep just one toy apiece. The big brother found a simple and poignant solution. He relinquished both of his toys and claimed one of his little sister’s dolls as his, so she could keep them both.
Such was the spirit of giving among the 10,700 San Diegans who began lining up outside the Southeastern San Diego campus at 6PM Friday, December 7 - 15 hours before the Saturday opening of the annual Toys for Joy celebration. The holiday event was founded 16 years ago by Rock Church Pastor Miles McPherson, four years before his church opened. The idea behind Toys for Joy is simple, but not easy.
Collect 10,162 toys, assemble 13,997 bags of groceries and 196,000 articles of clothing. Harness the energy of 2,593 dedicated volunteers the day-of the event. It worked beautifully. For many San Diegans, especially the 17 percent living below the poverty level, Toys for Joy means the difference between having a more joyful Christmas or none at all. “My favorite part about this event is seeing the whole community come together,from the churches to the schools, from the businesses to the church congregation,” McPherson said. “It’s a win, win, win for everybody.”
“It makes sure the kids have something for Christmas,” said Nicolas Espinal, who waited in line overnight so his wife and children could gain early entrance. “Unfortunately, times are bad. We lost our home last year.” A true giver was Venenzia Martinez, 15, who asked her friends to donate gifts to Toys for Joy in lieu of gifts for her birthday. “Christmas is a time when everybody needs to be blessed,” McPherson said. “Everyone needs to be reminded that God gave His son, so we need to give something.”
At the head of the line was Vanessa Herrera, 24, who said she’d been there the day before the event, with her sister, Sara, and six children. “We came around 4 Friday afternoon and came back at 6 p.m.,” she said, adding that her car broke down on the journey. Saturday morning at 8:30, accompanied by cheers, the first families entered the popular Toy Room, where Angel Ware searched for toys with her children, ages 10, 9, 8 and 6. “It means a lot, because Christmas is kind of hard this year,” she said, managing a smile. “I lost my job. And with four kids, I’m just trying to work it out.”
San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts and San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer came to show their support for the volunteers and for the families. “I know the real thanks comes from participating,” said Roberts. “But from the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank-you to volunteers who made this event possible. Giving back is a gift.” Nearby, the Toys for Joy clothing station provided some perspective for volunteer Tommy Hathorn, who waded through the long lines, chatting amiably with guests and offering a sympathetic ear.
“I’ve been up and down the lines,” he said, choking back tears, “and what I’ve realized is that there’s not one person who’s different from the other. Every single story is powerful, compelling and heartbreaking.”