EL CENTRO — Some 300 struggling families living below the poverty line were provided food for their pantries and presents for the children thanks to the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Christmas assistance distribution in El Centro.
“It’s really cute … not even us parents would know until that day (Christmas), so it’s like, ‘oh, who brought you this? Santa Claus or something?’ We’ll make up something the kids, but it’s something’s something nice that Salvation Army is doing for the community,” Denise Tamayo of El Centro said with a laugh as she picked up her items of assistance.
The families were thrilled to be able to get the help they needed during the holidays and there was a jovial air around the Angel Tree distribution on Thursday, Dec. 16, but the reality is that many of the stories that brought the residents to the Salvation Army are heart breaking.
One El Centro resident, Ivonne Zazueta, shared that without the Salvation Army’s assistance, her family would have had to do without Christmas entirely.
“I’m having a hard time with the gifts, so they helped me with the gift today for my son, my 9-year-old son. … The rent I pay is, it’s my limit of what I can spend. I can’t spend over my limit. I don’t have no more,” she said during the distribution event. “I only have enough for my rent.”
Zazueta spoke candidly about the how she got into the position where she needed the help, explaining that she had lost her home to a fire on April 2 in the same Desert Shores Trailer Park where three people lost their lives to a fire on Nov. 26.
After not being able to secure a replacement mobile home and receiving no assistance to help her find a new home, she was forced to move her family to El Centro, where the cost of living is much higher.
“I’m still struggling to get my pots and pans. So you can imagine. This is going to be our only Christmas right here because my income I get is lower than my rent …,” Zazueta said.
Zazueta was not alone in her struggles, with 18.1 percent of Imperial County residents living below the federal the poverty line ($26,500 for a family of four), according to the US Census. For those within this demographic, buying necessities is a daily struggle, so providing them with something extra for Christmas can seem like an impossible task.
“It’s kind of amazing because I wouldn’t be able to give my kids a really big Christmas at all and this makes it for possible for them. I did it last year and this year. It really helps a lot. It’s really tight, so it helps,” Marie Shirey Harrison said as she picked up her assistance.
Maj. Jessica Doria, who runs the Salvation Army El Centro Corps with her husband, Maj. Saul Doria, said struggling families were helped by providing food boxes, coats, and toys for Christmas presents, all of which is prepared individually to meet the personalized needs for each family.
“It’s a lot of work that we have to do pre (before) the distribution, and then all the cleanup post the distribution, but I think just knowing that we are doing a little bit to help our community members, you know, that’s good enough for us to be willing to help. And it makes us feel good as well,” Jessica Doria said as she helped hand out items.
The Salvation Army staff, who took over responsibility of the Angel Tree program after the pandemic made volunteering difficult, echoed Doria’s feelings. Salvation Army staff member Vanessa Young has been with the Salvation Army for the last five years, initially as a volunteer but moving into a staff position about two years ago.
The way the Angel Tree program has traditionally worked, in addition to donations at the Salvation Army, businesses and organizations allow an Angel Tree with ornaments specifying the gifts needed for each child and family in need that had previously signed up for the program. For example, an ornament hanging on a tree might have say a gift for a girl, who is 9 years old. That was the personalization of which Maj. Jessica Doria spoke.
For Young, this event fulfills a personal desire to help her community and is among the reasons she remains so passionately dedicated to the Salvation Army.
“It gives me a great feeling to be able to help. It’s something that just brings me joy personally, just to be able to see families getting something for their kids that they probably couldn’t otherwise …,” Young said. “I thank God that we’re able to do it and we still have the resources and everything to keep going.”