Twenty-three years running, the University Police Department Holiday Toy Drive gives much more than toys to low-income families surrounding SJSU.
The huge aerobics room in the SJSU Event Center is an explosion of sound, color and cheer. By the entrance, a young man with a furrowed brow struggles to wrap a large, oddly shaped gift, employing an immoderate amount of Scotch tape. Brightly colored rain jackets are strewn over every available surface and scraps of multi-colored paper and ribbon litter the floor, sticking together in rain-damp clusters. Along the far wall, a small sign reading “GIRLS” seems unnecessary over the mountain of pink on the table below it. All of the usual suspects are in attendance: Buzz Lightyear, Barbie, Elmo and My Little Pony. So is the whole offensive line of the Spartan football team, standing conspicuously head-and-shoulders above the crowd in front of the “BOYS” toy table.
“We’re right here in the heart of the city; this is our neighborhood. The UPD Toy Drive is a way for us to build positive community relationships.”
Volunteers—mostly students, many in sweatshirts sporting Greek letters—pack around long tables running the length of the room like Southerners at a low county boil. But there’s no shrimp at this holiday shindig. These tables are piled high with the makings of a merry Christmas for the children of 200 low-income families in the neighborhoods surrounding SJSU.
“The UPD Toy Drive is such a worthy cause, especially for the police department,” says Sergeant Jenny Gaxiola. Gaxiola has been involved with the Toy Drive for 21 of its 23 years, witnessing the evolution of the program from delivering food boxes to a handful of families to its current incarnation of two Santas, 40 home deliveries, 150 family pick-ups in the Event Center and countless volunteers. “We’re right here in the heart of the city; this is our neighborhood. The Toy Drive is a way for us to build positive community relationships,” says Gaxiola.
“Some people in this community live paycheck to paycheck,” adds Leticia Coronado, a staff member who is celebrating her 20th year volunteering with the UPD Toy Drive. “It’s hard for them to put food on the table, let alone presents under the tree. It brings me a lot of joy to know we bring smiles to children’s faces.”
The UPD Toy Drive is, as Gaxiola puts it, a “huge operation” involving students, alumni and members of the staff, faculty and community. Calls for donations began in mid-November, and several hundred toys were delivered by faculty and staff members at the SJSU president’s annual Seasonal Celebration in early December. Captain Alan Cavallo estimates that from start to finish, the Toy Drive involves about three months of planning and one month of work. But to those involved it’s worth it.
“On wrap day, I look at the name on the tag and picture that child,” says Sergeant Manuel Aguayo, another 20-year volunteer. “Then I look at the toy and think: ‘Little Jane’ would really like this toy. That’s when I get misty-eyed.”
“The great part about this program is that you get to see the people you help,” says Gaxiola. “You meet the kids as they get the toys. You meet their parents. You see their living situation. You see how much this little thing—a Christmas present for their child—impacts them.”
A six-year-old girl in pink, polka-dot leggings and a purple sweater jumps up and down in the apartment doorway at the sight of Santa, a.k.a. Manuel Ledesma Jr., a security specialist at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.
“Merry Christmas!” he bellows, reaching into the large, clear bag in his hand for one of the several gifts inside. “This one is for Elena,” Ledesma says, stepping inside the small apartment—the first of 38 stops for the day. The polka-dotted legs take another little leap. Her sister shyly peers out from behind their mother, who is holding a baby in her arms. “And you must be Jenna.” The family accepts their gifts with grateful smiles before posing with Santa for a quick Polaroid taken by Guillermo Bernardino, a UPD staff member. In front of the window by the door is a modest Christmas tree decorated with white lights, but there are no presents underneath—yet.
This delivery day, Saturday, Dec. 13, marks Ledesma’s seventh year as UPD’s Father Christmas. The week before, he appeared as Santa in the Children’s Reading Room in King Library for a visit with 175 children from the community. He doesn’t hesitate to share what he loves about being Santa: “The kids. I do it for the joy I see in their faces.”
Moments later the convoy pulls out, headed to the next address. Several squad cars, two pickups, a van and a Parking Services bus packed with volunteers and officers wind through the streets south of campus. Directions spew out over the police radio and motorcycle cops fly by to stop traffic at the intersections ahead. Car horns honk in recognition as the convoy passes; sirens wail in response.
Gaxiola is first out at each stop, her booming voice calling out the address and corresponding gift bag number. From the back of a pickup, several bundled-up members of Sigma Theta Psi find the bag and pass it down. They know the drill—their organization has been volunteering with the UPD Toy Drive for 22 years.
“This is a tradition for us,” says Mary Johnson, ’15 Child Adolescent Development and president of the sorority. “It’s my fifth year as a volunteer. Seeing the looks on the kid’s faces is so wonderful, even if it’s cold and we’re tired in the morning.”
Every volunteer has a job. The Spartan football players are back for more, all donning Santa hats as they manage the give-away gifts—a separate stash of undesignated presents and snack bags to give to the many children who run out to see what the commotion is.
“Ho ho ho!” calls Kyle Wright, ’15 History, offensive tackle for the Spartans, as he squats his 6-foot-7 frame down to hand a Spiderman figurine to a four-year-old boy. At each stop, the sidewalk crowds with people and a multi-lingual chorus of chatter and laughter fills the air. Christmas carols blast from the speakers of the van: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!”
Every time the team jumps back in the van to move to the next address, stories of UPD Toy Drives past surface.
“One year it was really cold,” says Ledesma, smoothing his fake, white beard. “One house we went to had no heater. They had the oven on and the stove burning for warmth.”
“Remember when we found people living in a shed in the back of a house?” asks Captain Frank Belcastro from the front seat, shaking his head.
“I remember my first year doing this,” says Bernardino from behind the wheel. “We gave a little girl a bike. She started crying then her mom started crying. I asked her why and she said, ‘I would have never been able to buy my daughter a bike.’”
“The UPD Toy Drive helps with gifts and gives us more confidence to believe in the police. We know that they are looking out for the community.”
At a large apartment complex right next to the SJSU International House, Yanely González opens her door holding a tiny baby boy. With her in the small apartment are her sister, Ana, and their six children between the ages of one month and 10 years.
“Merry Christmas!” says Santa, hefting the heavy bag of gifts.
Valeria, age six, is dressed for the occasion with a giant red bow tied in her hair. She eagerly accepts her gift from Santa and takes a seat on the carpet, turning the package over in her hands. She takes a furtive glance up, confirms that her mom is distracted, then makes a tiny tear in the corner of the wrapping in an effort to glimpse the present inside.
“I want to open it …” she whispers to herself as her three-year-old brother, Anthony, stands looking up at Santa, mesmerized.
“My kids love to watch for the cars coming,” says González. “They get so excited to see all the people with gifts and, above all, to meet Santa.” González has lived in this apartment for 10 years, and this is her family’s second year participating with the UPD Toy Drive. “It helps with gifts and it gives us more confidence to believe in [the police]. We know that they are looking out for the community.”
“We take care of our neighbors,” says Belcastro, echoing González’s sentiment. “These people know we’re not the bad guys.”
Back at the SJSU Event Center, Sergeant John Laws is also Santa today; it’s his 11th year in red and his 16th with UPD. He’s perched on a chair in front of a festive holiday backdrop ready to listen to wishes and take a photo with the 300 children whose families pick up their presents. Complete with faux fire and Christmas tree, it’s just like the classic mall picture, but without the $30 price tag.
“The biggest value of this program is giving back to the community,” says Laws. “Second, we serve the community in many ways, but the police are often looked at as adversarial. This is an opportunity to showcase some of the positive work we do.” Laws also uses this opportunity to encourage the neighborhood children to dream big—maybe even come to San José State for college.
“I had a little girl sit on my lap today and ask for a robot,” he says. “I told her, ‘Well, Santa might bring you something different this year, but when you come to SJSU and become an engineer, you can build your own robot. How’s that?’”
Just outside, a three-year-old boy whispers something in the ear of a squatting volunteer as his mother looks on. The volunteer listens, smiles and calls over the nearest UPD officer.
“This little boy wants to meet a police officer,” she explains as the boy steps forward and opens his arms for a hug.