Santa delights a child with a new toy at the My City Youth Center Christmas event on Dec. 17. The Hemet nonprofit received 100 gifts from this year’s Soboba Gives Back! Toy Drive. Photo by Erika London/My City Youth Center

The annual Soboba Gives Back! Toy Drive took a little more planning to implement this year but with the help of many dedicated volunteers, including members of the Soboba Youth Council, lots of children throughout the San Jacinto Valley will have a great new toy this Christmas. Soboba Foundation members worked closely with employees at the Soboba Casino Resort to allow toy donations to be dropped off at the Event Center on six consecutive Tuesdays from Nov. 10 through Dec. 15.

All volunteers working at the donation stations wore masks and gloves and sat behind Plexiglass partitions. Each toy underwent an extreme sanitation process, using a UVC LED handheld sanitizer, upon receipt. The portable wand is rechargeable with a 99.9% sterilization rating. The toys were then taken into a back room for sorting by another group of volunteers so they can be distributed to nonprofits that have requested to be included this year.

Things were certainly different this year but Soboba Foundation President Dondi Silvas said they offered themed days to keep the 50 volunteers in a festive mood. There was an “Ugly Sweater” day and one for “Christmas PJs.” She volunteered for several hours on most of the days.

“Longtime volunteer Joey Placencia was dressed every week with the joy of the Christmas spirit,” Silvas said. Placencia worked a full eight-hour shift every week of the event and said he participates every year as a way of giving back.

“I have a huge family, and to think there are kids out there going without, really tugs at my heart,” he said. “I loved seeing the gratitude from the public, to know that they were happy that we were providing for our communities’ needy children. It brought me a smile and kept us going, even with this pandemic going on.” Tanya Briones and her daughters, 16-year-old Tanya Rivera, 15-year-old Sica Rivera and 14-year-old Luisa Rivera, volunteer every year. They can start doing so at the age of 14, which allows the family to do something worthwhile together.

“The highlight for me is the fact that I know I’m helping families in the community so children don’t go without during the holiday season,” Briones said. “The reason I continue to volunteer every year is because I enjoy helping the community and representing my tribe. I also am able to show my children it’s good to get out in the community and help others when it’s needed.”

The COVID-19 pandemic did affect the number of toys collected – only about half of what has been received in prior years. Distribution of toys was also affected as San Jacinto Unified School District couldn’t host its annual Christmas party and other nonprofits had to give out gifts in a drive-by fashion. “In prior years, we would hold a special event complete with Santa and photo opportunities, along with cookies served by Santa’s Elves,” said Dawn Lawrence, SJUSD’s Communications and Emergency Preparedness Coordinator.

She said this year’s distribution was going to include a decorated entrance with socially distanced greeters but in the style of the district’s meal distribution grab-and-go process for touchless contact. Shortly before the planned event, another stay-at-home order was initiated, and the district had to completely shelve their Plan B for yet another alternative.

“We had one representative from each elementary school come to our warehouse and pick up their school families’ bags of toys (some had assistance with the transport),” Lawrence said. “A very controlled drive-up pick-up was done at each school site for their selected families. This was a tough decision, because we really wanted to decorate and make it fun along the path. We made signs for the sites to use thanking Soboba Gives Back for the toys.”

Lawrence said SJUSD served a minimum of 140 families in the first few years they have been fortunate to be involved with the toy drive program, then it increased to 240 families for a few more years, and now for the past three years up to 400 families or more are being helped.

“Without this program, we would not be able to serve families in this way,” Lawrence said. “In past years, we’ve had other organizations reach out to us with holiday food baskets, but generally only to serve under 25 families. This toy distribution is extremely important to our youngest students and their families. It is also a highlight at the close of the calendar year, when we say goodbye to our students for a three-week school break.” Hemet Unified School District is involved for the first time this year and Public Information Officer Alexandrea Sponheim said school site staff have done a wonderful job staying connected to all families so they could identify which ones could benefit most from the Soboba Gives Back! Toy Drive.

“We are so excited and grateful that Soboba invited us to participate,” she said. “Pandemic restrictions have caused us to think differently in how we serve our families. Since the pandemic began, we have been able to provide a drive-thru style meal distribution, which will be our plans for the toy distribution. We feel extremely grateful that Soboba is providing toys to our families. Our families have struggled a lot this year and we know that this will provide a much-needed bright spot in our families’ year. As a staff member, being a part of the distribution of toys will definitely be a highlight of my year!”

Divine Appointment Worship Center Senior Pastor Brian E. Hawkins said receiving toys they can distribute to children in the San Jacinto community during their Christmas party at Mistletoe Park is a true blessing. My City Youth Center Community Specialist Erika London said receiving 100 amazing gifts this year helped serve all the children in their program, ranging from babies to teens.

“We were able to bless every child,” she said. “We have been able to offer onsite after-school programming since quarantine. Obviously, we have a few new protocols in place, but we were able to move most classes outside, maintain distancing and institute screening practices that allowed us to continue to serve the children in this community. Also, we held monthly drive-thru events that allowed us to interact and serve children continually.” On Dec. 17, the Hemet nonprofit held a drive-thru gift distribution where children got to see Santa and receive their personalized gifts along with some Christmas snacks.

“Soboba’s generosity is deeply cherished here at the Youth Center,” London said. “With their provision and love, we get the opportunity to add extra attention to some of our community’s most vulnerable children. The giving from Soboba really helps us spread good cheer and holiday joy. Soboba really helped make a difference.”

-Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians • Contributed

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