It was nearly 18 hours before the big event, but a line of families began to form at the gate. Parents snuggled with their children in blankets on the ground, on chairs, even in tents, just to be sure they would be one of the first through the doors. No, it’s not a Black Friday sale or a sell-out concert. It’s the ever-growing, 17th annual Toys for Joy event in southeast San Diego. Held at Abraham Lincoln High and Walter J. Porter Elementary schools, the outreach is organized by Rock Church, along with 16 other area churches, numerous sponsors and donors.
Many families were willing to camp out and brave the chilly overnight temperatures in order to make Christmas more memorable with extra groceries, clothing, and toys that many of them just can’t afford. Over 8,700 guests were served this year, and each year, the number increases as the proportion of struggling families grows.
"Many San Diegans are nervous about being unemployed or underemployed, and half a million residents face food insecurity, not knowing where their next meal will come from," said Miles McPherson, pastor of Rock Church. "One in six children in San Diego live in poverty, and Toys for Joy is designed to provide those people with some hope. Hope is an expected desire that something positive is going to happen in your life,” said McPherson. “The one thing I hope they will leave with is hope. The church should be that.”
All told, 9,312 toys, 5,720 books and 35,000 pounds of food were given away, including 600 bags of food for Porter Elementary students in need during the month-long holiday break. A record 212 of bicycles were given away, including a portion reserved for the very last children in the toy line.
The annual event is a massive undertaking, and involves countless hours of year-round planning and promoting, encouraging people and business to get involved by volunteering, giving or partnering with in-kind gifts or contributions.
Families first stopped at the Gospel Stage, where they were treated to entertainment such as the talented and rhythmic percussionists of JR Crew. They also received spiritual encouragement and a reminder of the real reason for the season. Dave Stewart, Community Groups pastor at Rock Church, assured the guests that they would be receiving lots of food, clothing and fun activities along with their toy that day. “All that stuff is good,” he said, “but we’ve got a better gift to give you, and that gift is Jesus.”
A toy for joy
Volunteers gave a “red carpet” welcome to guests as they walked to the Toy Room, cheering and clapping as the first lucky families entered. Some children ran frantically to a coveted toy, while others slowly walked through the gym, mouths and eyes wide open. A few simply stood, awestruck at the sheer number and variety of toys perched on tables and bleachers.
Several of the older children had unrealistic expectations of iPads and other electronic devices, but once inside they were content to find electronic toys and remote control cars, items that were quickly snapped up.
Relax, St. Nick, your career is safe; but all that toy-giving was enough to make Santa’s elves a little green with envy and shut down Santa’s workshop - for a day, anyway. Santa made an appearance with Mrs. Claus and was as jolly as could be as he took photos with many of the children. “Ho, ho, ho! God has blessed everyone here,” he boomed with laughter, “My job is enhanced today!”
McPherson said Toys for Joy always hits home for his family because his wife experienced years where she was not able to receive a gift for Christmas unless it was donated. “To know that there are kids here, that this is the only toy they are going to get, that makes me feel blessed,” he said.
Former San Diego Chargers defensive end Jacques Cesaire and Chargers defensive end Kendall Reyes were on hand to help greet kids. “You walk into the toy room, you walk into a room where they’re passing out groceries, you walk where people are picking out clothes - it is truly a miracle. It really shows the miracle of Christmas,” said Cesaire. “Looking at these kids’ faces as they’re picking out the toy of their dreams, you almost have to fight back tears sometimes.”
San Diegans struggle this season
For families with a single wage earner, it can be particularly difficult to feel any Christmas cheer. One of the first in line, Sara Sanchez said that they are low in income because her husband was deported. “So there will be less presents this year because he was the one working and now I’m alone with my two girls,” she said.
There were so many single moms with kids in line, such as a Spanish-speaking mother of three whose husband passed away two years ago. She said she has to work two full time jobs to provide for her children, and added that Toys for Joy was the only way her kids would get presents and clothes for Christmas.
Cherelle Spring, of El Cajon, is a single mother of three: Zyariah, 5, Tearea, 4, and Jeffrey, 2. “This means there’s a lot of hope out there,” Spring said as the tears rolled down her cheeks in the toy room. A volunteer held Jeffrey as he clutched a toy train set while Zyariah tightly held princess dress-up shoes as if they would disappear. “You’ve got to keep faith in people in this world because for less fortunate people like me, having a family of three and being a single mom, it’s going to be a struggle for me to have Christmas,” Spring said. "I’m blessed to have somebody willing to help my family out and put the smiles on their faces.”
Gigi Neddo came with her two youngest of five children, Savannah, 9, Katherine, 8, and also her husband, Joshua, a gunner’s mate who works with the Navy Seals. He was in a wheelchair due to a hip injury and said this event is very important to them, as his wife is not working and is expecting their sixth child. “It means I have a gift for two of my kids,” said Neddo. “We’re hoping to get some food, too, some groceries.”
Family fun on the field
At the Family Field, guests enjoyed a hot dog lunch, entertainment and children’s activities such as face painting, crafts, animal balloons and a video gaming truck. Every so often, several bikes were raffled off. Haircuts were also given, courtesy of Rock Church’s Makeover Ministry. Over 5,400 books were also distributed, largely thanks to a $2,500 grant from Macy’s.
Onstage, McPherson was honored by elected representatives and community leaders for his role in organizing the event. “We want to thank the Rock church so much for what they’ve done for this community,” said 79th District Assembly member Shirley Weber, as she presented a certificate of recognition to McPherson. “Every element of our Christianity talks about activism. It tells you that you’re the light of the world, which means that people ought to see you...So everything about this faith ought to be about giving and outreach and I’m so happy that Rock Church has set a good example for all of us.”
Senator Ben Hueso also presented a resolution to McPherson. “This is an unprecedented contribution to a community I rarely see this as your elected official,” said Hueso. “Not only are you providing spiritual enrichment to our community but getting involved in social action and making a difference in people’s lives.”
Geniese Ligon, a teacher at Porter Elementary, has testified of the impact Toys for Joy has on kids at her school. “Kids talk about this all year long,” she said. “What you do matters. Our kids carry this for a lifetime. It is more than just one day.”
Partnering with 16 neighboring churches this year made it easier to provide a way for people to get plugged in to a growing relationship with the Lord within their community. “It’s so organized, unbelievably organized!” exclaimed volunteer Roberta Smith, a member of nearby Mt. Erie Baptist Church. “This is the community I grew up in and to see this come into our community, what a blessing.”
Terry Books, pastor of Bayview Baptist Church, got his congregation involved for the first time this year. “I told Bayview we needed 300 volunteers and 300 people stepped up and we’re out here today having a blast.”
For the second year, a separate area was designated for children with special needs. Tiffany Holland and her four children Malachi, 7, Desiree, 5, Amari, 2, and Yunik, 2, stood in line for 1 ½ hours. Her son Malachi has autism and attended last year but had to go home due to his condition and didn’t get to participate. This year, after an hour and a half in line, he had a seizure and again had to go home. Holland said a volunteer named Lisa told her that if she was able to come back she should go to the special needs area. They were able to return and enjoy the event.
“A lot of kids can’t stay in those lines and deal with those crowds,” said Holland. “[Malachi] gets overwhelmed really quickly. I’m glad he can still attend an event like this and have a smaller environment.”
Receiving spiritual and physical food
The clothing room was a flurry of activity with volunteers constantly straightening out the piles and piles of clothes that had been sorted through by many families. There was an estimated 100,000 items of clothing, double the amount of donations from last year. Every family was allowed to take home a 13-gallon bag filled with whatever clothing items they chose.
“Every family touches your heart differently,” said clothing volunteer Arleen Torres. “Just to have this whole day put aside for them – they get toys, they get fed physically and spiritually. For them to know that someone actually cares for them is probably a relief for them.” As each family left the event, they were escorted out by a volunteer who asked if they had God in their lives, and then gave them bags of food.
“I chose [to volunteer in] groceries because that’s one of the needs that people most need,” said Joelle Keyser. “I helped a family of eight or nine today who had little kids, lots of little niños. They packed everything they had – two or three bags of clothes, five or six toys and books, two strollers and they got everything into the trunk of this little car.”
A new participant this year was Rock Church’s Dog Lover’s Ministry, which provided dog food, treats, toys and a coupon for spay and neuter services to families with pets. “A lot of them might have pets at home,” said ministry leader Jami Oakley. “They’re having a difficult time providing for their families, their children. Why not help them if they have pets as well?”
As Rock Church expands -- it now has locations in North and East counties and is eyeing a South county site - McPherson is already visualizing multiple Toys for Joy events. “I hope next year we can have them at all our sites and see people blessed all over the county,” said McPherson. “We’ve got to spread this all over the county and spread as much good will as possible.”