There’s was a slight chill in the air upon arriving at the ILWU Memorial Hall. The minor bite of the Southern California winter lingered in the early morning hours, yet did little to stop the kind acts in motion. We entered the hall and in a quick instant, the cold air became warm. Maybe it was our own sighs of amazement, but we’d like to think there was something bigger and indescribable in the air.
Christmas music filled the hall. The entire place looked like a modern-day version of Santa’s workshop. No elves were present, but instead a multitude of adults, children and teens who volunteered their time to organize and sort through crates of toys. This year, students from Banning High School, California Academy of Math and Science, Eagle Tree High School, Poly High School, Perry Middle School, Broad Avenue, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Long Beach City College and many other schools participated.
By 9 AM the hall was filled with man-made aisles of toys, all separated and labeled by gender and age range. We saw sports equipment (basketballs, footballs, soccer balls), skateboards, toy cars and trucks, board games, stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, dollhouses, and many other doll sets. On the other side of the hall, rows of tables were set-up and covered in red and green table cloths. In a matter of minutes, the tables would be filled with cookie and cake crumbs, empty cups and laughter. Outside, families and children waited patiently to enter – this would be the beginning of their Christmas.
For us, the holiday sentiment wasn’t alive because of the many toys around us, but because a community had come together to make Christmas a possibility for many deserving families – a true reminder of what the season is all about. The younger volunteers were hardly tempted by newness and shininess of the toys. Instead, they meticulously sorted and set-up every item, preparing each for the deserving young hands that waited outside.
I spoke with Lisa Tonson, lead person of the ILWU Holiday Events Committee. “We used to have toy drives each year – we delivered toys to local children hospitals and wards. Then one year, we decided to have a Children’s Christmas Party of our own. We took a vote and said let’s do it!” The rest is history.
Every year, the ILWU Children’s Christmas Party assists over 2,000 kids in need, but Lisa estimates about 3,000 children benefited from this year’s event.
Preparation for the event begins early with the committee requesting donations from the various ILWU locals and members. With the money collected, the committee purchases a variety of toys at a discounted rate. They are known to be one of Mattel’s top buyers due to their extreme fundraising efforts.
The committee then reaches out to various local non-profits like Harbor Interfaith Services, the Joseph B. O’Neal, Jr. Stroke Center, San Pedro Service Center and Headstart Programs in Harbor City, San Pedro and Wilmington to find low-income families in the area.
The volunteers then complete the rest of the holiday magic. Over 200 volunteers participated in this year’s event.
“I had a 7 year-old carrying a cake tray from the kitchen to the table area during the entire event. That’s all he did and he was completely happy” stated Tonson.
As soon as the toy set-up was complete, families walked in and each child was allowed to pick a toy of their choice. The participants then walked into the reception area where they were served cookies, cake and punch. The kids were also treated to face painting and a visit from Santa himself. A representative from Chivas USA was also present to hand out hats and shirts. After, the families were allowed to take a holiday keepsake – a small Christmas tree or poinsettia. Every bit that was received, was given and appreciated by many.
Many thanks to members and friends of Locals 13, 26, 63, 94, the Women’s Aux #8, So. Cal Pensioners, Longshoremen Memorial Association and the Local 63 Memorial Association. This is truly the most wonderful time of the year!