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Christmas follows old traditions in Pescadero

Pescadero resident Jorge Guzman serves as a personal shopper for kids at the Jan. 6 holiday gift give-away in Pescadero.
By STACY TREVENON--Half Moon Bay Review

For the past five years, a holiday gift giveaway sponsored by Coastside Catholic Worker took place right before Christmas and brightened the holidays for lower-income little Coastsiders.

But last year, organizers found ways to tweak the giveaway to follow early Mexican holiday tradition more closely, reach out to the most needy Coastside families and give children an additional gift of empowerment, all in one.

On Jan. 6, St. Anthony Catholic Church in Pescadero overflowed with happiness in an event held in partnership with Coastside Catholic Worker, the North Street Community Resource Center in Pescadero and the California Department of Forestry/San Mateo County Fire Department.

At the church, more than 100 children from 45 families received an average of five gifts apiece, including toys, games, books, new clothes and gift certificates. Their parents got some necessities, too, at a holiday party sponsored by Catholic Worker.

The scene at the church was unique, said Kathy Niece of Catholic Worker.

The gifts arrived in four fire trucks driven by California Department of Forestry firefighters, who carried the gifts into the historic church and then served as personal shoppers helping the kids pick what they wanted.

"I have never seen the people here with more smiles on their faces," said Pescadero resident and event co-planner Jorge Guzman of Pescadero. "Everyone is very happy."

In previous years, Catholic Worker - which began in 2000 with the Magdalene House in Half Moon Bay - has held an annual holiday gift giveaway which served mostly Half Moon Bay families and some from the South Coast.

In 2004, the organization moved the event to Pescadero, and organizers found themselves with a few gifts left over. So, in early January 2005, they took the leftover gifts to Pescadero children.

According to church and Mexican tradition, said Niece, Epiphany (Jan. 6) is "Dia de Los Santos Reyes," sometimes called the "Feast of the Three Kings," commemorating the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem.

While Christmas is a solemn holy day commemorating Jesus' birth and focusing on family and friends, said Niece, the "Day of the Holy Kings" is traditionally more a time for gift-giving. In Mexico, she said, children put out their shoes to be filled with gifts.

So Catholic Worker organizers decided to make that day the party, she said. It started in early December, when Guzman visited local farms and ranches to pinpoint disadvantaged families.

"We really made an effort this year to make sure we were finding the truly needy," Niece said.

In a coordinated effort, several organizations on the Coastside and elsewhere pitched in to collect gifts. These included Turner Construction Company in San Mateo, the Early Learning of Notre Dame in Belmont, the Coastside Mothers Club and the Coastside Service League.

Also, St. Luke Catholic Church in Foster City, St. Edmund's Episcopal and St. Peter's Catholic churches in Pacifica, and Holy Family Episcopal, Coastside Lutheran and Community United Methodist churches on the Coastside, got involved.

The children, with help from the firefighters/personal shoppers, picked out one large and one small gift each, and also got smaller stocking-stuffers. While previous Christmases had included a "grab bag"-style giveaway, this time the gifts were displayed unwrapped so kids could pick what they wanted.

It was planned that way, said Niece. "We think it's important for children of immigrants to have personal choices, and they usually don't," Niece said. "They're told where to go and what to do, and they don't have personal choices.

"(This year,) they got what they wanted, not what someone tells them they need to have. The excitement on their faces indicated we made a good choice."

Being able to choose their own gifts, she said, "forms a foundation of personal empowerment that will have lifelong benefits."

Parents weren't forgotten. While only kids and firefighter "shoppers" were inside the church perusing the presents, parents were taken outside and given stockings filled with gifts of necessities "that the families could use," Niece said.

The event served children that missed other holiday gift-giving efforts, Niece said, such as the Coastside Opportunity Center's Adopt-a-Family, which many families hadn't heard of or couldn't travel to.

"We see the need," she said, "and the excitement of the kids who got nothing from other agencies."

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