Thousands of toys going to needy children ◆ By Mike Hiles
Thanks to the Soboba Gives Back Toy Drive, families with young children attending schools within the San Jacinto Unified School District will have a merrier Christmas this year. Since the annual program began more than a decade ago, the Soboba Casino and Soboba Foundation have partnered with the district to provide toys to students who have been referred by school personnel as particularly in need.
“We served a minimum of 140 families in the first few years with the program but the last couple of years it has been closer to 240 families and this year will involve 400 families,” said Dawn Lawrence, who handles communications for the district. “Without this program we would not be able to serve families in this way. SJUSD continues to have 82 percent of our student population in low socio-economic status; this annual toy distribution is extremely important to our youngest students and their families.”
For the past 11 years, the district has been fortunate to participate in the program. For the fourth year it held its “Unstuff the Bus” event where about 200 volunteers from the community stood in lines to pass along toys unloaded from a filled “Soboba Gives Back” bus. It took about an hour for the final toy made it to the end of the lines.
Youths from the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians were on the bus as Juan Brizuela Perez from SJUSD’s facilities and maintenance department worked his way from the front to the back of the stuffed bus to hand toys to them one at a time.
“I’m just here helping with my tribe,” said Tot Briones, 14, who is a member of the Soboba Tribal Youth Council. “I’m trying to give back and help our community help those in need. I like working together and helping people.”
She was joined on the bus by her peers and fellow Soboba Tribal Members Moyla Arviso, 9, Su’la Arviso, 13, Ete’tish Suun Arivso, 6, Ruben Estaniloa, 8, Sierra Ramos, 13, and Abel Valdez, 11. At the end of the lines, a group of San Jacinto High School cheerleaders quickly sorted them by gender and age and helped others place them on pallets in a district warehouse that had been decorated with colored lights while speakers blared Christmas carols.
“The reason why this is such a big deal is because this kind of thing doesn’t happen everywhere – it’s here, in our town,” San Jacinto City Council Member Scott Miller said.
SJUSD will host a toy distribution event at the district office later this month, where invited families will receive a sealed bag of toys for all the children in their household.
While the schoolchildren in San Jacinto are the largest group of recipients, the toy drive also provides gifts to other organizations including Native American children from non-gaming tribes in the local area. Nearly 50 groups shared in the 6,500 toys that were collected during the five days of this year’s toy drive.
“The need grows in our valley every year even though the economy is strong,” Soboba Foundation Coordinator Andrew Vallejos said. “We had an increase in requests this year but we were thankful that we also had an increase in the number of volunteers who helped during each eight-hour shift of toy collections at the Soboba Casino.”
Dee Cozart has been VIP Tots’ chairman of the board of directors since 2008. The center provides day care for children from birth to seven years old and works with the state for children with special needs. VIP Tots has had the benefit of Soboba’s toy donations for the past six years.
“We have families in all socioeconomic lines but many in the low or very low range,” Cozart said. “This program is a real boon to our families and allows them some holiday cheer without the financial stress.”
For the past two years, Luci Green has been the Area Administrator for Pathway Family Services Southern Region which has its Riverside County office located in Hemet. The foster family agency has been an appreciative recipient of the Soboba Gives Back Toy Drive for the past three years.
“Pathway Family Services demonstrates a deep commitment to the children in foster care by training, certifying and supporting resource families in their efforts to care for abused, neglected and at-risk children,” Green said. “Our team will match gifts as closely as possible to bring smiles to each and every one of our youth on Christmas Day.”
Mt. San Jacinto College also has students in need and each holiday season its C.A.R.E. (Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education) and Phi Theta Kappa honors society programs receive toys that go to those that need it most, based on referrals and recommendations by faculty, staff and students themselves.
The C.A.R.E. program aids single parent, head-of-household students and PTK works with any students who need some extra help with providing toys and food for their children.
Nick Reeves, biology department chair at the Menifee Valley Campus and faculty advisor for PTK since 2008, has taken charge of the annual event where members of the Beta Delta Omega Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa at MSJC complete community service by sorting and wrapping toys and helping to collect items from food drives held at all four of its campuses.
About 60 student families will benefit from PTK’s volunteerism this year and the group has been grateful for Soboba’s assistance in their mission of providing these community service opportunities since 2009.
“For many years, we have been fortunate to receive toys from Soboba and we really appreciate their generosity,” Reeves said. “We rely heavily on their support to make our event possible each year.”