The annual drive serves hundreds of families ◆ By Mike Hiles
Local nonprofits have been able to breathe a little easier during the stressful holiday season thanks to the annual toy drive made possible through the generosity of Soboba Casino and the Soboba Foundation. Each year, thousands of toys are collected at the Soboba Casino and turned over to grateful groups that have a long list of needy families they serve.
Jim Lineberger, executive director of the Community Pantry for six years, said more than 10,000 families are registered at the pantry. The organization provides Thanksgiving turkey food baskets, Christmas turkey or ham baskets and toys.
"A family can only receive one of these three events once every other year, so we can reach out to more families," Lineberger said. "The toys we get from Soboba go to our one- to 12-year-olds."
About 50 families per year benefit from the donated toys that requires them to sign up for an appointment to receive toys at the pantry, whose motto is: giving hope, helping families, blessing lives.
"We were going to stop this program five years ago as it was a lot of work during the holidays but Soboba gave us one of our biggest donations of toys and this was a sign we needed to continue the program," Lineberger said.
Another grateful benefactor of the annual toy drive is the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians in Mountain Center. Tribal Chairman Steven Estrada said his tribe started receiving gifts about eight or nine years ago.
"Each year our Holiday Committee makes arrangements for the toy pick up from Soboba," he said. "They hold wrapping parties prior to the Tribe's Christmas Party where the gifts are distributed to the kids."
Nearly 100 children up to the age of 17 are able to have special gifts thanks to the program.
"Soboba has always been supportive of our Tribe," Estrada said. "Without their assistance we would still have an event, but it would have to be scaled down."
San Jacinto Unified School District also makes a party out of the toy distribution and this will be its tenth year of partnering with Soboba.
"We hold a special event, complete with Santa, his elves and many volunteers serving cookies," said Dawn Lawrence, SJUSD's communications and emergency preparedness coordinator. "Each of our elementary school sites refers a percentage of their student families to our event."
Since the invited families are only a portion of the seven elementary schools' student population, a personal invitation is used for the give-away event.
"We are very open about inviting employees, volunteers and community members for the 'Unstuff the Bus' event when the toys are delivered by Soboba to our district office warehouse," Lawrence said.
The toys are then sorted by age appropriateness and matched with a listed child before being wrapped and bagged for each selected family. All siblings of identified needy students receive gifts too so the district focuses on providing toy gifts for children from three to 12. Older children are given a small gift card to Walmart.
"We will be sending out electronic communications through the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Chamber of Commerce, spreading the word to help unload all the great toys collected. We use the same method for inviting additional volunteers to help with the distribution day," Lawrence said. "We have found that children and their families feel more comfortable when they see some of their school staff helping with the distribution – and helping Santa greet each child."
During the first few years the district joined with Soboba, the program served about 140 families but the past couple of years it has been closer to 240 families. SJUSD continues to have 82 percent of its student population in low socio-economic status that is mainly determined by qualification for free or reduced-price meals.
"Our enrollment has grown since 2007 and we appreciate the increase in toy donations to support this growth," she said. "Without Soboba's help, we would not be able to serve families in this way. This annual toy distribution is extremely important to our youngest students and their families."
The Soboba Gives Back Toy Drive will be from 12 to 8 p.m. on the following Mondays: Nov. 13, 20 and 27 and Dec. 4. The Soboba Casino is at 23333 Soboba Rd. in San Jacinto. For each toy valued at $20 delivered to Soboba Casino, with a receipt, a voucher will be given for $40 in free slot play.