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In a bad economy, the mayor’s toy drive serves greater need

on November 23, 2009

The line was long. It was cold. And it was fairly early in the morning. But these factors did not discourage nearly 1,400 parents from waiting in line at City Hall in downtown Oakland on Saturday to sign up for free toys for Christmas.

The Mayor’s Community Toy Drive, which is sponsored by Mayor Ron Dellums and several council members, began Saturday with a sign-up event. Parents came to fill out an application specifying their Oakland residency, proof of their children’s ages and proof of income. The federal poverty line was used as a guideline, but the basic guideline for applicants was low-income parents and if there was dire need. On the application, parents listed their children’s names, genders and ages in order to receive an appropriate bag of toys.

Although parents cannot request specific toys, assistance center officials are aware of the diversity of the applicants. “If you want a black baby Barbie doll, you’ll get one,” said Al Lujan, the supervisor of Oaklanders Assistance Center, which is run by the mayor’s office, and is organizing the toy drive.

The parents also made an appointment to pick up the toys during the third week of December. Lujan said the Oaklanders Assistance Center has partnered with various local businesses to have drop-off locations for toy donations throughout Oakland. These include the Oakland Ice Center, Chabot Space and Science Center, the Oakland Zoo, and Oakland City Center. With donated money from businesses involved in philanthropy to a $10 check from an average citizen, the assistance center will also buy additional toys.

The toy drive is in its 30th year. Although the drive has grown each year, the assistance center and many volunteers were expecting a larger turnout this year because of the tight economic circumstances of many families in Oakland. Last year, 1,200 families were served, but this year, Lujan said, they are estimating 1,600 families will be served. After Saturday, families can still go to City Hall to apply.

After talking to some parents in line, Lujan said he learned that many people came for the first time coming because they have recently become unemployed. He said it was their first time having to reach out into the community and “wait in line in the cold.”

“Every year we get an increase in folks in need, so this year we anticipated [a greater need],” he said. “We knew folks would get here early, even though they didn’t need to, but I was a little taken aback when I took a peek out and the line stretched from Clay Street to Broadway.”

Although there is always a large turnout, Lujan said, last year was difficult because the organization went over budget and ran out of toys. Some of the staff even had to use their personal credit cards to buy toys. “It was heartbreaking to turn away families or say ‘Come back tomorrow and we might have something for you,’” Lujan said.

The holiday season can be a very stressful time of the year for some parents, but Lujan said parents have been very humble and appreciative. “I know there’s a lot of anguish when you’re a parent, when your putting food on the table, but you can’t provide a Christmas present for their child,” he said.

Keith Holt, a community liaison with the mayor’s office, said the toy drive is an opportunity for the city to give back and support families to show that the city cares. “I think Oakland is a city with a disproportionate amount of families who are struggling,” he said. “Some have been struggling for a while. Some, this is the first time they have hit a hard time.”

Martha Rivera, an 18-year-old volunteer who was wearing a Santa Claus hat, said she heard about the toy drive through her youth group at church. She said her youth group leader told her that the event needed translators to assist Spanish-speaking parents with filling out the application.

Although Rivera said she often volunteers in the community, she said she was shocked at who came to the toy drive. “Some of the families that came here are people I actually know, like from school, church and the community,” she said. “They’re people you would never think would be here, but their kids want toys and they don’t have money to buy them.”

“They’re very thankful,” Rivera added.

Lujan said that he wanted the volunteers to have compassion and respect for the parents, some of whom had been standing in line since 7 a.m. “This morning I woke up at 4 a.m. remembering my childhood. I grew up really poor,” he said. “This one Christmas, I was eight years old and my mother gave this kind of janky battery-operated organ. It made this horrible sound and as a kid I was kind of like ‘What the heck is this?’ but I looked at my mother and I knew she must have felt really bad, sad and embarrassed that this is the only thing that she could provide.”

“I had to grow in that moment and act like it was the best present in the world,” he added. “I wanted to convey to the volunteers that that’s what parents are feeling.”

1 Comment

  1. […] deserves to wake up that morning to something new and special under that tree. Oakland North had a touching post about the toy drive sign-ups last week, which not only said that more families were signing up this year than last (not […]

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