SANTA ANA — The Christmas party was not until noon, but some of the 1,200 children of Cambodian refugees who gathered for the holiday festivity were so eager for their presents that they showed up nearly three hours early.
"The center has been passing out presents for six years now, and the kids have been expecting it," said Rifka Hirsch, executive director of Cambodian Family Inc., where the party was held.
"They couldn't wait. There were about a thousand here before 12, and we had a clown entertaining them at 11. By 11:30, some of the kids started yelling, 'The toys! The toys!' and they all ran outside to the back of the center and lined up."
Jaroh Mohamed, 11, was one of the children crowding around a booth in the back parking lot of the building, where volunteers frantically tried to keep up with demands for more toys. She walked away from the booth carefully carrying a box of toys and articles of clothing for herself and her sisters.
"My friend told me they were going to give away presents," said Jaroh, whose family has been living near the center for three months. She said she liked seeing Santa Claus at the party but that she liked getting presents even more.
The holiday party was co-hosted by volunteers from Cambodian Family Inc. center and the Orange County Red Cross, as well as by 20 graduate students from Third World countries. The five women and 15 men from nine countries were in Orange County attending a weeklong seminar, sponsored by the Protocol Foundation, on small business development and entrepreneurship.
The party provided the international students with hands-on experience on volunteerism, said Pat Ware of the Orange County Office of Protocol.
"It's another concept that is good to pass along to other countries," Ware said. "Most of the students come from countries where volunteerism is non-existent. Usually the people of those countries need help so much themselves."
Most of the children came to the party from Santa Ana's Minnie Street neighborhood, a low-income area behind the center known for its concentrated population of Cambodian residents. Hirsch estimated that of about 10,000 Cambodian refugees living in Orange county, about 5,000 live close to the center.
She said the center usually sponsors the annual party by itself with the toys it receives from Toys for Tots and Operation Santa Claus, two programs that provide presents to underprivileged children. This year, American Red Cross officials called Hirsch in early December to offer additional toys, sweets and Santa Claus.