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Out of grief comes a donor's joy

At a toy giveaway in Boyle Heights, a woman quietly watches, knowing she is returning a favor from decades ago.

December 10, 2006|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Dignitaries, from athletes to the governor to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, handed out toys and mugged for the cameras. Banners on the walls of the Hollenbeck Youth Center in Boyle Heights thanked the corporate sponsors of the 25th annual Miracle on 1st Street Christmas Toy Giveaway.

But the woman who had donated more than any other individual to Saturday's event stood in the back, unnoticed. She blended into the tableau of working-class mothers from the neighborhood because she herself is one.

Benita Nunez felt at once happy and heartbroken. For her, the toy giveaway has long been a bulwark of joy against sad feelings and tough times.

She found herself thinking back to the day in 1983, when she was 16, already a mother and still a student at Roosevelt High School.

She was living on public assistance and had no toys for her baby, Jason. She went to the youth center, where she had played basketball with a big smile that had earned her the nickname Dimples. And that day 23 years ago, she left with a wooden rocking horse, with real hair on the tail, Jason's first Christmas present.

Since she received that horse, the years had brought even more, both good and bad: a firetruck and balls for young Jason at other Christmases, three more children, a divorce, a new husband and the death of her mother.

But Nunez never forgot Hollenbeck, her old neighborhood, or the toy giveaway on the second Saturday in December.

So six weeks ago, when she received a financial windfall for the most terrible of reasons -- her husband's accidental death -- she knew immediately where she wanted to spend some of the money.

"We've had a hard time," she said. "But for that reason, I can help out those who I remembered from when I was needy."

Nunez was born Benita Coronado, the youngest of 14 children, and grew up at 6th and Lorena streets in Boyle Heights. On that block, her mother Bertha Lopez's tamales, served with turkey at Christmas dinner, still are revered.

The Coronados scattered, to Oregon and Texas and middle-class lives all over Southern California, but she stayed with her mother. Ten years ago, they moved to Rowland Heights, where they eventually rented a modest house on a cul-de-sac.

By 2001, her new husband, Baudelio Nunez, had joined the household. Two years later, they had a child, Abraham, her fourth. Baudelio Nunez had immigrated from Durango, Mexico, and used to tell his wife he had spent so much time working in the fields that he had little time to play.

In Los Angeles, her husband made his living driving a commercial disposal truck. On Oct. 25, 2004, he had pulled his truck to the side of the Foothill Freeway in Pasadena when a Coca Cola truck struck him and his vehicle, according to court records. Baudelio Nunez was killed. He was 31.

His widow sued Coca Cola for wrongful death; the case was settled in October. Nunez would not disclose the amount but said the money has allowed her to pay off debts and, for the first time in her life, "not worry about tomorrow."

Shortly after the settlement, Nunez heard that the Hollenbeck Youth Center's director, Danny Hernandez, was running hundreds of toys short.

On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, Nunez, who used to work in the wholesale clothing business, drove downtown to the wholesale Toy Mart and purchased 777 toys. A week later, she bought more, bringing her total to an even 1,000. She spent about $6,000, making hers the largest donation by an individual in the quarter-century history of the event, organizers say.

"She grew up here dirt poor," said Hernandez, the center's director. "We were not expecting it."

Hernandez invited her to youth center events, but she prefers to be at home with three of her four children -- Maria, 20, Adrian, 15, and Abraham, now 3 -- and their dog, Lois. Jason, now 23, has his own family and has made Nunez a grandmother.

She went to the toy giveaway Saturday morning but stayed only briefly. She wanted to get back to throw a surprise birthday party for her late husband's older brother.

Her daughter, Maria, said it was clear that the donation was deeply personal.

"I think it meant a lot to her because this money was something our stepfather has blessed us with," she says.

joe.mathews@latimes.com

Researcher John Jackson contributed to this story.

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