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TOY STORIES

Response to Theft Turns Giveaway Into 'Miracle on 1st St.'

December 22, 1996|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christmas came early to Boyle Heights this year.

Like frantic parents in other parts of the city, many moms and dads of this low-income neighborhood stood in line Saturday to pick up toys for their kids.

There were important differences, though. Instead of waiting an hour at a checkout counter, some had camped out overnight on the street. Most had their children in tow. And at the moment when they finally received their gifts, some actually shed tears of gratitude for a Christmas they might not otherwise have had.

"I don't have money, and I want something for my little girl," said Judy Sical, 18, the single, unemployed mother of a 2-year-old. "This will be the only present she gets from me."

Christina Espinoza of Cypress Park had similar hopes for her four children ages 1 to 10. "This really helps out," she said. "The kids who are less fortunate--at least they have this."

"This" was the 16th annual Hollenbeck Youth Center Christmas Toy Giveaway, but this year with a twist.

Last week, burglars broke into the center and carted away its entire stash of 3,500 presents collected for poor children in the neighborhood. The thieves--a group of youths described as gang "wannabes" with little parental supervision--were later caught. But only about 200 of the presents were recovered.

Then something happened that turned the toy-giveaway-that-almost-never-was into a sort of Miracle on 1st Street. Hundreds of Southland residents--ranging from Sylmar moms and Anaheim church members to such celebrities as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jay Leno--came forward with armfuls of toys. The result: about 15,000 toys given away to an estimated 10,000 kids.

"It affected our hearts," said Assaf Waknine, a vice president at TransAmerica Communications Network, which donated $10,000 worth of toys. "We brought down a U-haul full of toys this morning."

The children and their families reacted with a good deal more than the average measure of Christmas enthusiasm.

They began lining up as early as 6 p.m. Friday, according to Waknine. At 4 a.m. Saturday, about 2,000 of them were braving the breeze to see what Santa would bring. And five hours later, Waknine said, about 8,000 people were standing in lines stretching eight city blocks before walking through one of the four festive-looking red-and-white tents from which gifts were dispensed.

"Christmas should not be taken away from anybody," the corporate executive said. "We got a satisfaction that made this memorable; it wasn't the donation itself, but the feeling on seeing these kids' faces as they were being handed these toys."

Kids like 4-year-old Art Ramirez, who got a toy firefighter's helmet and a Mickey Mouse pop-up book. Art's dad, Marco Ramirez, is an unemployed printer with little money to spend this Christmas.

Or Andrew Meza, 16, who walked away with a portable radio. "I didn't really care what I got," he said. "This is pretty good."

While enduring the long wait to reach the head of the line, the children and their parents were entertained by the antics of professional wrestlers, as well as the sounds of live musicians ranging from mariachis to rappers.

Espinoza cried as she described the ordeal of facing Christmas alone for the first time with her four children, whose 26-year-old father was murdered a month ago.

"This made the kids happy," she said.

Salvador Tovar called it a joyous occasion. "It's a blessing to the family," he said. "It brings the holidays to the poor people."

And at least one youngster, Tovar's daughter, had a difficult time deciding which present she liked best.

"My favorite," said 6-year-old Yvonne Tovar, glancing at a cardboard box containing, among other things, a doll and a pop-up book, "my favorite is . . . well. . . ."

She paused determinedly, trying to make up her mind.

"These toys are my favorite," she said finally, waving her hand over everything in the box.

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