DEL MAR — Despite the dreary weather, the mood was bright and festive inside the Del Mar Fairgrounds building housing the annual holiday basket event. Hosted by the Community Resource Center for the 28th year, the three-day event served a record number of families from Dec. 17 to Dec. 19.
For Ella Cleveland and her daughter Lydia, the opportunity to go shopping without the price tag was a blessing. “We both lost our jobs,” Ella said as she motioned to Lydia who was busy picking out clothing for her 3-year-old daughter.
The Oceanside residents heard about the program through a friend. “I really am grateful for what these people are doing,” she said. “So many people are having a hard time right now that this is really a great thing to have this chance to be in the program.”
Volunteer Lillian Carmona helped guide the two women through the maze of toys, clothes, linens and food. Carmona, whose son Angel Flores is a social worker at Lifeline, said her entire family assists with the program. “We help because we can,” she said. “I love to see the people smile, they are so in need and they leave here smiling and happy.”
This year there were more people to serve than in the history of the program. As the largest comprehensive holiday distribution program of its kind in San Diego County, holiday basket served more than 5,500 people.
In the weeks leading up to the event, North County families were screened for eligibility, as hundreds of volunteers like Carmona and her family worked to transform the cavernous Grandstands building into a 20,000-square-foot shopping center complete with holiday music and decorated Christmas trees.
“It doesn’t feel like a handout,” Felicity Gutierrez said. The Carlsbad resident was shopping for her two sons. “It’s very hard to not have enough to provide for your children, especially at Christmas, “ she said. “These people are really helping us to feel dignity in hard times.”
The makeshift department store served as a beacon of hope during the stormy weekend. Families filled their shopping carts with essential food items, including turkeys, blankets, outerwear, toys and bicycles.
More than 200 organizations and 1,600 volunteers came together to brighten the holidays for participants in the program. Donna Marie Robinson, a member of the resource center’s board of directors, volunteered for a third year. “It’s amazing,” she said as she looked around at all of the toys and sports equipment she was busily organizing. “Look at all of these smiling faces,” she said. “I’m a happy camper.”
The lack of new toys and outerwear for young children was apparent this year. However, a few “secret Santas” answered the call to help fill the gaps in donations. “A lot of people are hurting this holiday season, but this community always comes through to help their neighbors,” said the center’s Executive Director Laurin Pause.
First-time volunteers Renae Greig and Alejandra Chan from the San Dieguito Unitarian Fellowship were filled with holiday cheer despite the long hours on their feet serving donated food items to families. “It’s been fantastic,” Chan said. “There are so many donations and there are so many volunteers. This is what the holiday spirit is all about.”