By Martha Sarabia
The holiday season often makes people more conscious and responsive to the needs of those around them. It was this unique sensation that in 1971 motivated Palomar college student Alex Gonzales to collect toys for the children of low-income households in his Vista neighborhood.
Now, after 35 years, the annual Palomar College MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan or Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan) Toy Drive has lived to tell its long-standing history.
When John Valdez, now professor and chair of Palomar College’s Multicultural Studies Department, first came to the local campus, the toy drive had recently started in the community. “Gonzales had a Christmas party in his garage for the kids in his neighborhood. About 30 kids played games and then got presents collected by MEChA,” said Valdez about the event’s humble beginnings.
Little by little, the student club started to adopt the annual event as its own through Gonzales, who was a MEChA member, and moved it to the community college.
More than three decades later and after being organized by different students every year, the toy drive has shown to be strong. “It’s the longest Christmas running program in the county,” said Valdez.
The toy drive focuses on collecting new, unwrapped toys for children and teenagers between the ages of 3 and 12.
“Our main purpose is to help the community. We give the toys to the kids in our community especially to those in low-income housing,” emphasized Lorena Duarte, Palomar College MEChA president.
Up until now, the average number of toys collected every year ranges between 300 and 400 toys.
It has become a tradition for the contemporary toy drive to start with Noche de Cultura or the Night of Culture event. Community members bring a new, unwrapped toy to pay for admission to the night program. During this event, participants have an opportunity to enjoy music and dances ranging from Mexican folk music and dances such as la danza de los diablos or the dance of the devils to rap performers, while also contributing to the toy drive. Some attendees also make monetary donations to help with the cause.
“It’s a celebration of different cultures. It’s also a way to help,” said Duarte about the fundraiser’s kick-off event.
The toy drive ends with the delivery of the toys during the annual Christmas party or as Valdez likes to call it the Chicanito party, which will take place on December 17. During this party, children receive the toys and also have an opportunity to see, touch and talk to Santa Claus.
“The concepts is the same to when it started: to make Christmas day very special for the kids and to give them a quality toy to take home and have fun with it,” Valdez said.
In order to make the party special for the children, many of its organizers including Valdez have participated in the holiday spirit. “I’ve been Santa Claus for a couple of years. I wore a poncho and boots. Last year, I forgot the beard,” he said between laughs.
Despite its long history and the commitment of those involved in making it possible, the toy drive has had to overcome many obstacles every year ranging from being financially sufficient to having enough students and other volunteers to organize the toy drive and its fundraising events. “Hopefully, we can get more support from businesses. The dinner that we used to provide has gone out of our budget,” added Valdez remembering previous Christmas parties.
It’s one of Valdez’s goals to give meals to the toy recipients and their families. Duarte also plans to encourage local business owners to help the student club in its annual mission to be able to give more toys to a larger number of children.
Beyond the laughs, struggles, and memoirs, the organizers are aware of the positive impact that the toy drive has had in the community as they are approached by children and their parents thanking them for the toys received.
This year, the toys will be collected until December 15. Boxes to drop off the new, unwrapped toys are distributed at the San Marcos campus located at 1140 W. Mission Rd. These can be found at the library, admissions office as well as in other classrooms such as SU 17 and SU 28A.
A day before the Christmas party and right after taking finals, MEChA members and other volunteers get together to wrap the toys.
All the toys collected are delivered to the children in the surrounding communities, many of whom live in San Marcos.
For more information about the MEChA Toy Drive and/or to help in any way, call (760) 613-9695.