Thousands of northern Santa Barbara County children got a sneak peek at their Christmas haul Friday night, as more than 800 families from Santa Maria, Orcutt and Guadalupe received a bag full of gifts from the Central Coast Toys for Tots program.
Started by the U.S. Marine Corps in 1947, the program, which was co-facilitated by the Santa Barbara County Community Action Commission, brings a bit of extra holiday cheer to families with children who could not otherwise afford to purchase gifts. Friday's distribution, held for the first time at the Minami Community Center, ends months of preparation.
"All the gifts these families are taking are all donations from different agencies, organizations and community members," said Maggie Suarez, CAC program coordinator and Toys for Tots lead organizer. "We had a massive amount of support this year."
Last year the program received around 20 bikes, a gift that's commonly asked for but in very low supply. This year they received 77 from the Elks Riders.
Friday's distribution was another successful giveaway, Suarez said, but acknowledged that the change in venue from the California National Guard Armory caused confusion for some families. Still, if parents with children showed up on Friday without a golden entry ticket, the program went out of their way to accommodate.
"This is an event for the community. We try not to turn anyone away," she said. "If there's a family that needs a little bit of extra support we try to make that happen for them."
For repeat volunteers like Maggie Perez, a member of the Santa Maria-based So Cal Athletics softball team, Friday was a chance for her to give back to the community. "Last year I had a good experience as a volunteer. It's good to see all their smiling faces as they get their gifts."
Ray Espinoza laughed when asked to recall how long he has volunteered with the Central Coast Toys for Tots program. "I don't know," the Santa Maria native said, chuckling, while directing families to their pickup location. His best guess: "a long time."
Espinoza credits his late wife, Maggie Espinoza, with spurring his interest in the program. Nearly five years after her death, he continues to volunteer with the program (as well as CAC) to give back to his hometown.
"I love the people that come and donate the toys," he said. "Last year and this year we thought we weren't going to have that many toys, but out of nowhere we got a good load."