CAMP PENDLETON — The holiday season is a joyous time, yet also a time of financial burden for many families, particularly young, active-duty military families who are often barely scraping by.
To make sure everyone has the most wonderful time of the year, the Armed Services YMCA with the help of civilian donations provides hundreds of military families and thousands of children with toys, bikes, gift cards and more each year.
Executive Director Samantha Holt said the base’s branch of the Armed Services YMCA will serve more than 600 families alone this year through its Santa’s Workshop event on Dec. 14 and 15.
YMCA volunteers and staff will set up a large, 40-by-40 foot tent and stock shelves with toys, bikes and other gifts for children at the YMCA’s site on base. The toys are sorted by gender and age as well as by day to keep the selection fair and the shelves full for both days of the event. Families come in and “shop” for three to four gifts per child just like they would in a store, but at no cost.
Once the two workshop days are over, whatever toys are left will be packaged up and sent to the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, where there is a smaller number of families living there.
Holt said most of the toys or money donated to buy toys and gift cards come from civilian families in Orange, Riverside and San Diego Counties.
“Many of them have been donating for years, which is absolutely amazing,” Holt said.
Some military families can also sign up for the YMCA’s Secret Santa program. Participating families write a wishlist of gifts, and then are “adopted” by a civilian family who buys those gifts for them.
These holiday programs are only two of several different programs that the Armed Services YMCA runs throughout the year to help young, military families. The YMCA also provides a diaper and food distribution program, emergency financial support, childcare, afterschool programs, military ball gown giveaways and scholarships.
Holt said these programs aim to strengthen the military family as a whole by helping these young families who don’t always have the support system they need when they first move here.
“Picture this: you’re a young person who joined the military, sometimes you’re married and you have children and you come in from another part of the states to Southern California, which is expensive, and you’re away from family,” Holt said. “Childcare is expensive and hard to come by, so a lot of times our families have to live on one income which gets tight, which is part of the reason why we started our diaper and food distribution because our families were coming short between paychecks and needed extra support.”
Holt said one of the biggest struggles for military families is being away from their own families, which is why the Armed Services YMCA strives to build a support system through the people it serves on base.
Oceanside Councilmember Chris Rodriguez recalled how the Armed Services YMCA helped him and his young family when they moved to base in 2002.
“I had heard about them through Command,” Rodriguez said. “For my wife they provided a ball gown, bunk beds for my kids, and a whole tree full of presents that we never would have been able to afford. They really blessed us.”
Rodriguez said he and many other young families struggled when they first moved to base.
“We had nothing, we had to build from scratch,” he said. “We were living paycheck to paycheck.”
Holt also remembers moving to base as a young military spouse and struggling with being alone and without resources.
“I know what it’s like to come here and be on your own, and with lower rankings the pay is obviously lower, so I understand what it’s like and what our families go through,” Holt said. “It’s nice to be able to connect those families with resources who can help them to be successful as a military family.”
While similar in its core values, the Armed Services YMCA is different from the main YMCA organization specifically in its focus on aiding young military families by supplementing needs like childcare and extra support. There are several branches of its kind across the United States on or near military bases, including three in Southern California with the one on Camp Pendleton, another in San Diego and a third in Twentynine Palms.
“We’re not a swim and gym place where you walk into a facility and there’s a bunch of exercise classes,” Holt said. “The base already has sports and gym facilities, so we run programs that strengthen the military family.”
Holt noted that the Camp Pendleton Armed Services YMCA branch is unique in that it’s the only branch of its kind that provides a recreation center on the northern end of base due to the high number of single Marines living here.
The Armed Services YMCA at Camp Pendleton is accepting money, gift card and toy donations for its holiday program until Dec. 10. Those who wish to donate can contact the office by calling 760-385-4921.