Bag Full of Smiles

Looking down into a bag of toys
at the El Paso Salvation Army Toy Distribution Center.

Tuesday, December 22, 1998, El Paso, Texas- From a vacant building on the corner of Lomaland Drive and Pellicano Road in eastern El Paso come the brightest smiles and the greatest rewards, all wrapped up in the spirit of Christmas.

From this building, parents of thousands of children will receive a present or two (not the type of present your aunt gives you - there are no new shirts here, no shoes or PJ's.) This is the Salvation Army toy distribution center, and out of these doors come thousands of beautiful, new toys - the fuel for the widest smiles on any kid. And from this building, hundreds of volunteers will receive a healthy dose of the spirit of Christmas.

From atop the Franklin Mountains, on the north side of town, The cities of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico are a beautiful sight. The lights from the homes of half a million people in El Paso, and twice that many in Juarez, make for a brilliant blanket of colored stars below you. The spectacle quietly hides the reality that, in Juarez, families live in one of the worst economies in the Americas. Though El Paso is a prosperous city, the effect of having such a deprived neighbor is challenging.

I arrive at ten O'clock, three mornings before Christmas. The center is well into its second day of performing a large miracle, and I find myself in the middle of the process. As in thousands of communities throughout this country and the world, an organization - in this case, the Salvation Army - turns the wheels that make all this happen. As in most communities, it all starts with donors.

"I need an eight
year-old Barbie!"

"Most of the toys come to us from the United Way Giving Tree, says Captain Michael Olsen, Salvation Army El Paso County Coordinator. Throughout the year, the Giving Tree works with manufacturers, distributors and merchants, who donate surplus toys and parts of inventories. In the fall, through programs like "Angel Trees" area organizations collect toys from employees and customers. Most of the toys are brand new, in their original packaging. Some people wrap the presents - a well intentioned, but wasted effort - they can't distribute a gift if they don't know what it is. "We spent last night unwrapping presents," volunteer Dorothy Sing says.

In the fall, The Salvation Army finds a building in which to distribute the toys. This is not usually a problem, as it makes for a nice tax deduction for landlords with empty units. "We had three buildings offered to us this year," Olsen, says. Donations also cover the electricity needed during the month.

At the end of November, the Salvation Army office begins accepting applications from parents. Children qualify with two requirements; they must be residents of El Paso (there is also a Salvation Army office in Juarez) and the family must meet the same income requirements as with food stamps, according to Camerine Hunter, Social Services Director of the El Paso County Salvation Army. Hunter has been with the Army for nearly twenty years and seems to be the consummate leader of a project like this; she is gentle, energetic, articulate, well-humored and she has a smile that lights up a room. Hunter is obviously an inspiration to the volunteers.

I help volunteers like Dorothy Sing, Gloria Diaz, Dave Garcia and Orval Prunk unpack boxes of toys, organize them and give them to parents throughout the day. Matthew Rodriguez, a student at the University of Texas, has been volunteering here for three years. He shrugs off the decision to spend his Christmas break lugging toys in and out of dirty warehouses; "A lot of kids need a break," he says. "And I'm here to give them a break."

Prunk, a Gulf War veteran, and Sing, who once worked for the Salvation Army, are on the front line, deciding who gets which toys. They don't have much time - yesterday they helped 589 people - and they never see the children (children are not allow here - it would be a madhouse.) All they usually know is the child's age (infant through twelve) and gender ("nino" or "nina" around here). As the parent is escorted to the toy area by a volunteer, he or she gives Sing their paperwork. Sing then calls out a list of toys and, today, I run and get them.

"OK, let's go with a Battleship game, a Barney doll, an Outburst game and a basketball," she says, in what, over hours nearly becomes a chant. Sing gives each parent at least one toy for every child, and maybe more if the toy is small or if we have plenty of them. While selecting toys, she tries to imagine children of the particular age playing with them.

"A football, a Rook and Bottle Caps games, a metal dump truck and a purple truck," she says, as I scramble. "Here you go, Ma-am - Feliz Navidad!" The day is a blur of bright colors as hundreds of toys pass through our hands. "What size are your daughter's feet?" Sing asks a mother. "Do we have a size six pair of roller skates?" Up pop a pair of skates, and the woman breaks into a smile. "I need a Barney doll, a watch, a green truck and a nine year-old Barbie!" As she issues commands, I sprint about the rooms, grabbing toys like I'm on a shopping spree, and I dash back with the goods.

After receiving toys, the parent is escorted to the food area, where Hilda Magdaleno gives them a box of provisions for their family. Over 1,500 boxes worth of food has been donated through means similar to the toys, with the addition of the USDA, which provides such exciting foods as; prunes, dates and beans, in plain, white boxes and cans with seductive labels like; "Crispy Rice Cereal."

Usually the parent is very quiet, as this is not a proud moment for them, and they don't really have much leverage. Sometimes they will ask for a certain gift, or will comment on what they are given - and we consider this as speaking for the children, not them - but most are just very, very quiet.

Out of thousands of parents, there are some grinches. "Then you get the one that will throw the toy back in your face," says Sing. "A volunteer even got scratched last year." But the rewards of helping thousands of children far outweigh such encounters. Some people take advantage of the system. "There are several programs and some will say; 'Oh, I got that toy at the other place.'" Hunter says the Salvation Army is working to coordinate the various agencies in El Paso with a computer database to avoid duplication. One grinch last week stole a Salvation Army van, full of toys - it was found in Mexico, empty and damaged.

This is a tough time for the parent, and the volunteers try to make it pleasant. They really hustle to collect the gifts, and practically panic when someone has to wait in line. They refer to the parents as "clients" and everyone gets a "Merry Christmas" or Feliz Navidad" - and a smile.

It takes up to 100 volunteers each day to run this program. Today, a handful of volunteers are from the St. Pius X Church confirmation class. These boys and girls in their early teens are getting a three-day lesson in everything from working with others in a busy workplace, to an appreciation of their own economic situation. "They love it," class teacher Rosie Briones says. "They know they're doing something worthwhile - they're energized!"

Occasionally, a woman arrives who is very well dressed, evoking thoughts of; "what's she doing here?" But it is not our position to make that judgment, and besides, she could be on her way to or from a job interview, or she could have just recently come into hard times, or any of a hundred reasons, actually.

I look at the armloads of brand-new gifts people walk out of here with, and the piles and piles of toys we are going through, and my head spins a bit. But I know that each child will only receive one or two of these toys. I remember back to my own, middle class childhood, and to that greedfest I called Christmas, and I feel a bit embarrassed. Add to this the fact that most of these children's lives during the other 364 days of each year are a lot worse than mine was, and I feel that I am helping someone who is truly deserving.

In the five hours I work here, I give toys mostly to women. This is either because the father is working, or because they are the only parent. Of the several parents I escort, all are women and, since they all have listed only one more person for food than they did for gifts, I presume they are all single-parents.

It has been slow today, perhaps because of the cold. The volunteers are expecting a crush of people tomorrow, the final day of the program. Hunter will be at the Salvation Army center, downtown, on Christmas Eve, undoubtably caring for hardship cases. She should leave at noon, though she probably won't, because there will likely be mothers without presents and there will likely be children without toys. It just wouldn't be Christmas for Camerine Hunter if she knew that this world missed the beautiful smile of even a single child, for in that smile resides all the joy and innocence in this world.

Camerine Hunter, working on a city full of children's smiles.

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