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A Taste of Christmas
By Shawn Maree McCowan

Rock Church serves up fun at Toys for Joy 2014

This year wasn’t going to be much of a Christmas for Jenny Gonzalez. The reason? Because, as she explained with a shrug, “I’m a single mom of three.”

Then a friend told her about Toys for Joy.

She was amazed to hear that the 18th annual Toys for Joy, sponsored by Rock Church, provides free lunch, clothing, groceries, services and activities for families, as well as a brand new toy to each child in attendance. Held at Abraham Lincoln High and Porter Elementary schools, the event joins local churches, community partners, and generous donors and sponsors to provide holiday fun for families who may not otherwise enjoy the season.

“If you want to know what Rock Church is about, it’s about today,” said Miles McPherson, senior pastor of Rock Church, indicating the thousands of volunteers of every age and color, serving in unity. “This is all Jesus wants, that they would all be one and people would experience the love of God."

The event has become so popular that – similar to Black Friday – families begin lining up and camping out the evening before. For the first year, the event was held in three locations countywide. By 9PM Friday evening, 71 families were already in line at the Lincoln High School site. Over 7,800 guests attended the event there.

A Taste of Christmas
“It was kind of last minute. We really weren’t thinking of doing anything for Christmas,” Gonzalez said after helping her two-year-old daughter, Jada, choose a Barbie set in the Toy Room. “So this is fun. We’re here and enjoying it and it’s about God, so that’s even better.”

All throughout the venue, stories like the Gonzalezes’ echoed on the lips of parents.

It was also Zulma Mendez’ first time coming. She became unemployed about a month ago and heard about Toys for Joy through her child’s preschool in National City.

“It’s meant a lot, especially being a single mother of four,” Mendez said as her 3-year-old son Jesse fingered his new Leap Pad toy. “Seeing what the public and churches can do for families who really need it brings a smile to my face. It’s a help.”

The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 1 in 5 children in San Diego live in poverty, and the overall poverty rate for San Diego rose this year to 15.2 percent, according to a KPBS report.

“People in our area are hurting,” said Terry Brooks, pastor of Bayview Baptist Church, one of the event partners in southeast San Diego. “There are homeless people, there are hungry people. The economy is not as great as they’d like it to be. …We’re able to give a taste of what it means to have a Christmas.”

Joshua Velasquez, 5, was overjoyed to get a Spiderman scooter, since his was broken “and my bike is broken, too,” he added.

“We don’t have a lot of money for buying toys so they mean a lot,” explained his sister Laura.

“This what San Diego is all about,” said San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman as she toured the Toy Room and watched the toy selections. “It doesn’t matter where you live, it’s everybody coming together just helping each other… so families can have a Christmas.”

In the Family Zone, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar, and San Diego Unified School District Board Member Marne Foster were also on hand to greet guests and participate in the festivities.

As families waited for bike raffles, they enjoyed entertainment, a free hot dog lunch on the field and other activities: face painting, puppets, balloon animals, jumper slides, a train ride. Books were given away due to a generous grant from Macy’s. Other free services, such as manicures and haircuts were also available.

Angel’s Closet
Participants were allowed one 13-gallon trash bag when entering the clothing room at Porter Elementary, dubbed “Angel’s Closet.” Filled with items from Rock Thrift Store, guests could fill their bag in the time allotted, said team leader Marce Hanson. This year, 198,725 items were given away.

“There was a woman who came through crying, so overwhelmed,” said Hanson. “She said that she just couldn’t believe that she could get clothing for her children and her family and she just kept saying, ‘God bless you, God bless you.’” Hanson said the woman had seven children.

Evalina Leon has been working two jobs recently but has moved around from place to place for the last four years, living with relatives and friends. She was happy to be able to get clothes for her, her daughter Reynna, 18, and granddaughter Danayah, 4. “It’s hard times; it’s very hard times,” said Leon. “We needed this little bit of clothes.”

Vanessa Herrera, 25, has been in the “First Family” three years in a row, standing in line since 1PM the day before. While things are a little better this year for her, her extended family and her six kids, having the groceries from Toys for Joy means “we know we at least have something to eat for the next day and the next, at least for the kids.”

»» To read recaps from the other Toys for Joy locations, click here!