Latoya Williams, 30, plays with her 7-month-old daughter, Madison, after… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
They made their way from Watts, San Pedro, Alhambra — entire families huddling in the rain overnight and tucking their kids in on cardboard.
The backbeats of downtown Los Angeles' skid row caroled them through Christmas Eve.
By early Christmas morning, hundreds of homeless and near-homeless families had crowded into a line that wrapped around the Midnight Mission's block. Many had camped out since 11 a.m. Monday to make sure their kids would get toys, meet Santa Claus and celebrate Christmas in a way that wouldn't otherwise be possible.
Some parents who were out of work or in recovery programs said they hoped that a visit to skid row, and a glimpse of lives bleaker than their own, would teach their children about gratitude and the need to work hard.
Lucila Castano of Alhambra lost her job at a sewing factory this year. Santa doesn't come to the house in the morning anymore, she told her 6-year-old son Ivan as he played quietly with his stuffed tiger, oblivious to addicts yelling obscenities across the street. "You can meet him in just a few more hours."
A few feet away, Latoya Williams, 30, wrapped her arms around her 7-month-old daughter, Madison. Williams, her sister and their children had been outside for almost three days, waiting in line before this for a different skid row toy giveaway. Her baby's first Christmas was important, Williams said, and she thought her 12-year-old niece Ienda could learn something from experiencing skid row.
"You see? You need to go to school and work as hard as can be," she told her. "Don't just get a job because it's a job. Find something you love to do so you'll love working the rest of your life."
But there are no guarantees. Williams lost her customer service job at Wells Fargo two years ago. A month later, she found out she was pregnant. Then her unemployment benefits ran out. She now lives in transitional housing downtown.
At first, she said, she was hesitant to wait in overnight lines for giveaways, but then she saw Madison playing with new toys.
"It's worth it. It's worth it. I'll do it again," she said. "As soon as I can, I'm going to give back — because my daughter has a Christmas, and I will one day make sure someone else will too."
Inside, Midnight Mission had been transformed overnight — the walls covered with metallic wrapping paper, and tables and bins piled high with toys collected with the help of the event's lead sponsor, Nestle USA. Volunteers and city officials paired up with children and one by one walked them through Santa's Village to select their gifts: a book, a toy, a ball, a stuffed animal.
In the middle of the room, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa scooped up Amariah, a 1 1/2-year-old dressed in a pink jumpsuit.
"How about this doll that looks just like me and you?" he asked, waving a box while bouncing the toddler in his arms.
Amariah's great-aunt, Harriet Franklin, 41, wiped away tears at the sight of the mayor with her grand-niece. "I want so much for her," Franklin said as she followed her family on crutches.
Franklin, who is in one of the mission's recovery programs, had one leg amputated when she was 15 because of a tumor in her knee. She said she hopes next year to get her own apartment. Her dream is to have her grand-niece, who is living in a trailer, move in with her.
After going through Santa's Village, families lingered in the mission's courtyard, emptied of its usual visitors seeking emergency services. Kids wobbled on new skateboards, toddlers danced with their Let's Rock Elmos and parents greeted other parents they had befriended in line overnight.
As one woman walked back to the street, her daughter held on to her new teddy bear tightly with one hand and clutched her mother with the other.