The Soboba Foundation, in collaboration with Soboba Casino Resort, is getting ready for its annual Soboba Gives Back! Toy Drive event. Each year, toys are collected by volunteers who sort and count them for distribution to organizations that request help for community children in need.

From noon to 8 p.m. on Nov. 9, 16, 23 and 30 plus Dec. 7, a toy valued at $20 with a receipt can be taken to the Soboba Casino Resort Event Center to be exchanged for a $40 Free Slot Play voucher.

Despite the pandemic shutdowns and slowdowns of 2020, Soboba Foundation members hosted its signature event but didn’t receive nearly as many toys as it had in the previous 10 years. Organizers are hoping this year will be bigger and brighter than it has been in the past. And deserving recipients are hopeful as well.

Last year’s drive collected 4,100 toys, the lowest amount in the history of the event. Planning early, expectations are high to exceed 5,000 this year, enough to provide for the groups that depend on this assistance each holiday season. The toy drive has allowed as many as 50 nonprofits and child-based groups to present toys to young families each year.

Soboba Foundation President Dondi Silvas acknowledges that these past few years have been very difficult for everyone, especially the little ones. She enjoys collecting the toys from the patrons of the casino.

“I’m always eager to hear how much fun they had picking out the toys, because some of them don’t have little ones at home to shop for, or they do and they say they got the same toy for a grandchild,” Silvas said. “Now that I’m a Glamma, I need to see what the latest and greatest toys are on the market.”

Silvas also appreciates attending any events when she can watch the families come in to pick up the toys. “Just the look on their faces knowing that they have been blessed during the holidays, that’s what Christmas is all about,” she said.

Soboba Casino Resort Assistant General Manager Jason Cozart said the toy drive is always a special event. He said, “Together, the Soboba Foundation, our team at SCR and our wonderful guests are able to collect and distribute thousands of toys to children at Christmas. The joy this Toy Drive brings to not only those kids, but to those who participate in it, is immeasurable.”

Thousands of toys collected during the Soboba Gives Back! Toy Drive in 2017 are stored for safe keeping before being distributed to deserving nonprofits and community organizations. Photos courtesy of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Catie Stanley, who was recently promoted to Director of Marketing at SCR, said partnering with the Soboba Foundation for the annual Soboba Gives Back! Toy Drive is something the staff looks forward to all year long. “As a Team Member, we are fortunate enough to touch each part of the donation process, from the charitable spirit of those who come out each week to donate, to the gratitude of charity organizers and children who are receiving these wonderful gifts,” Stanley said. “It is truly heartwarming from start to finish and we couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to give back to the local community. This event reminds me of how fortunate I am to live in a community that prioritizes serving those in need. I am grateful to the Soboba Foundation and Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians for making this annual event possible. It is amazing to see all of the wonderful Tribal Members and Tribal employees who take time out to serve our community each and every year. We truly do rise by lifting others, and that philosophy can be seen in action right here at Soboba Casino Resort every November at the Soboba Gives Back Toy Drive.”

Longtime volunteers include Soboba Tribal Members Joey Placencia, his mom Doris and his aunt Tara, among others.

“It’s always been in my nature to give back. My family has always taught me to do so,” Joey Placencia said. “We enjoy helping out with the toy drive; it is one of the highlights of our year and so much fun! The faces of everyone involved really give a sense of community and the giving of the season.”

He said he’s been volunteering for about seven years now and said it’s a good feeling to put in the work. He primarily works the check-in area, which he prefers.

Tara Placencia said she loves volunteering for the toy drive and looks forward to it every year.

“I get to know the employees on a different level, and I also get to know the guests who are so generous,” she said. “My husband Patrick Placencia is an employee and tribal member, so he is the one that got me involved. It is so much fun to do this and it is such a positive event.”

Doris Placencia has spent eight years as a volunteer and sometimes gets to attend the events where the organizations distribute the toys.

“It makes me feel so good to see the little kids smile,” she said. “One thing I like most about helping out is collecting the toys and seeing how those who donate, many of whom are regulars, light up in the spirit of giving and providing toys for children who might otherwise go without.”

Ginger Bejar, who works at Tribal Administration as a Benefits Coordinator, said she volunteers because it is so rewarding to see how many participants there are each year and also because she likes to provide support for the Soboba Foundation.

Toys are sorted and stacked onto tables inside the San Jacinto Unified School District after an Unstuff the Bus event in 2018. Photos courtesy of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Laura Hernandez, a Tribal Member Benefits Coordinator, said, “I have never worked in a company that gives so much in return, especially during the holidays in which it is a blessing to have.”

Staff Accountant Anna Moses said what she loves most about helping out with the toy drive is being able to help put a smile on someone else’s face. “Giving back was something that was ingrained in me as I grew up. My parents always told me, if you can make a difference, then do it!” Moses said. “I have been blessed throughout my life and I strongly believe that to whom much is given, much is required. If you have a chance to do more and create change, then take every opportunity to do it. Sometimes the smallest things can change a life.”

New this year will be the utilization of volunteers from the organizations that directly benefit from the toy drive. About 6-8 are needed in front at the check-in area and 3-5 to work in the back of the house, sorting and counting during each weekly eight-hour shift.

Along with smaller nonprofit groups that benefit from the donation of toys, local school districts have been able to count on Soboba for support for its neediest students to ensure they have a happy holiday season as well. Alexandrea Sponheim, Public Information Officer for Hemet Unified School District, said this will be the third year their students will be recipients of Soboba’s generous toy giveaway. Last year the district received 1,000 toys to distribute to children that are identified by parent liaisons who work with families every day and are able to identify those that would benefit the most from this event.

Without the Soboba Gives Back! Toy Drive, Sponheim said there would be less of our youth in the valley that would receive a gift over the winter break. “Our community always finds a way to rally around our youth, but it would not be done to the extent we are able to do it with the support we get from Soboba,” she said.

San Jacinto Unified School District does more than distribute the toys to students who have been identified as needing a little extra help with toys during the Christmas season. For many years, with the exception of 2020, it has hosted an “Unstuff the Bus” community event where volunteers from all over the San Jacinto Valley come to unstuff a Soboba bus full of toys to be stored inside the district’s warehouse. It is a time for everyone to come together to celebrate the season of giving with Christmas lights, hot chocolate, holiday music and other festive things. Gale Hill, Executive Assistant to the Superintendent and Board of Trustees, said they missed not being able to host the event last year and are hoping it can be held in 2021.

“The Unstuff the bus event is a great joy, knowing that those toys are going to some needy children who will have some happiness puts a smile on all our faces,” Joey Placencia said.

About 300 families are served through SJUSD’s program, that provides more than 1,000 toys to the students and helps with gifts for younger siblings as well. SJUSD’s Family & Community Engagement Specialist Carla Adame said the district currently has about 80 identified students who are living in a qualified homeless situation and they are still working to identify others.

“We have many more in a needy situation during this time where rental moratorium and additional unemployment benefits have recently ended. Our district teams are continuing to identify the needs and make sure to place students who need the holiday help and cheer on our special lists,” Adame said. “Soboba Foundation has been generous enough to increase the amount of toys most of the years. Last year we received about 1,600 toys; Soboba is amazing!”

In 2019, hundreds of community members volunteered to unstuff a Soboba bus that was filled with more than 1,000 toys for students who attend schools in the San Jacinto Unified School District. Photos courtesy of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Tara Placencia said she was “so moved and so proud to see the community come together to unstuff the bus in the past. I can’t wait to see how we do in 2021 as 2020 was a little slower. I hope we as a community will receive many toys to help make many children happy.”

Valle Vista Assembly of God has been a grateful recipient of toy drive collections for more than six years. They receive about 100 toys each year to distribute to the San Jacinto community where it is located.

“Nominations are taken from members in the community and then considered based on need (financial, living situation, grandparents caring for grandkids, single parents, tragedy (death/fire) and how many toys are available),” congregation member Andrea Helms said. “Each year we adopt a few families from local schools who are in need. The toys are wrapped and delivered to families along with a food basket, typically the week before Christmas.”

She said each basket includes a thank you card that lists all the community supporters who contributed to the baskets. Helms said without the toy drive the church would most likely provide food baskets only or give much smaller, less quality gifts for the children from places like the dollar stores.

My City Youth in Hemet has been a recipient of about 150 toys each year for the past three years. The toys are distributed at two separate Christmas parties; one it hosts for its after school program kids and one for its teen parents and their little ones. The mission of My City Youth is “to be the best examples that guide our youth towards reaching their full potential as productive, caring, kind and responsible citizens.”

Christopher Oliver with the County of Riverside Public Defender’s Office said he can’t even begin to express his gratitude for the hundreds of toys that have been donated to the children of parents involved with the courts. “In our local judicial system, we have specialty courts that are collaborative in nature. We have substance abuse courts, veterans court and mental health courts. Each of these courts have impeded teams from five different departments (district attorney, probation, behavioral health, defense bar and the courts themselves). In these specialty courts we work together to treat the consumers for ailments they may have that caused them to be in the system. It is the children of these consumers that benefit from the amazing donations,” Oliver explained. “The programs are very intense and depending upon where they are in their treatment, they may not have the time to work nor provide for a Christmas for their families. Also, most of these families have suffered greatly due to their family member’s struggles,” Oliver said. “The parents and families know that Soboba made this happen, but the children think the toys are from Santa. Prior to meeting Soboba, many people would dive into their own pockets to make (toy purchases) possible but with changing times and financial struggles it would get more and more challenging. Honestly, when you see the look in these consumers faces that their children are enjoying this celebration it is very humbling.”

Children who are part of My City Youth’s afterschool program were treated to a drive-thru Christmas party in 2020 and received toys courtesy of the Soboba Gives Back! Toy Drive. Photos courtesy of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Dolores Odom from the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians said they are grateful to be recipients of toys since the Soboba Gives Back! Program began. They usually receive about 250 toys for Tribal children and reservation community children.

“Everybody gets something,” Odom said. “We usually distribute the toys to the children at our Tribal Christmas Party but because of COVID-19, we are not able to hold large gatherings.”

She said with the help of eight Community Events Committee members, Tribal parents can choose up to four presents per child and pick them up from the Tribal building while observing safety protocols.

“We have so much love and appreciation for Soboba and want to thank the Tribe and the Soboba Foundation for always caring for our children in such a generous way,” Odom said. “We also wish to thank Andrew Vallejos for being so helpful to us with this process each year.”

Jared Dobbins, Executive Director of VIP Tots in Hemet, said the school receives about 175 toys each year for families that are identified by teachers and the administration. Parents can “shop” at the center for their child the week after the toys arrive. He said without Soboba’s generosity, things would be completely different.

“As a nonprofit, we would be unable to provide toys to families due to budget constraints. The partnership with Soboba is vital in our being able to make our families’ holiday more special,” Dobbins said.

Silvas wants to remind everyone to, “Bring in one toy worth $20 to bless one child in your community on Christmas day and you will receive $40 in free slot play, giving Soboba a chance to bless you with some winnings as well.”

Toy drive dates are Nov. 9, 16, 23 and 30 and Dec. 7 from noon to 8 p.m. at Soboba Casino Resort’s Event Center, 22777 Soboba Road in San Jacinto.

For more information,

Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians | Contributed

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