Anthony struggled with the wrapping a bit, but as he tore open the colorful paper, the look on his face showed it was worth it.
Inside was a collection of characters from the Pixar movie, “Cars.” Other children in the room at Father Joe’s Villages clapped and said “Wow,” as they did for just about every present opened Thursday morning.
“I want it to go faster,” the 4-year-old said a few moments later as he raced one of the cars on the carpet.
Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, said the annual Christmas event is a way of normalizing a non-normal life for children in the downtown San Diego homeless shelter.
“We remember our own upringing, and we’re trying to develop memories for them so in the future they can have fond memories of their time here,” he said.
About 200 children ranging from infants to 5-year-olds from the nonprofit’s Therapeutic Childcare Center sat on Santa’s lap and opened presents that had been bought with donated funds. Later that day, 30 school-aged children at the shelter hopped on an Old Town Trolley to tour holiday lights before returning to Father Joe’s for a party with pizza and piñatas.
The holiday events are festive, but also a reminder that San Diego’s homeless population includes families with young children.
Vargas said about 1,000 children are served at the shelter each year, and 300 families are there on any given night. Besides its brick-and-mortar facility, Father Joe’s also operates a large tented shelter in downtown San Diego with 150 beds, including 50 for single women and 100 for families. Of the family beds, about two-thirds are used by children, Vargas said.
Juana Cortez, who is staying at the shelter with her four children, said she appreciated the presents Thursday morning.
“It’s thoughtful of them to do this for our kids,” she said. “We’re lucky to have this help for us.”
A mother of five who had arrived at the shelter just three days earlier also said she was thankful. A domestic violence survivor, she asked to withhold her name for safety reasons.
“We always had great Christmases, and now that we’re here, we can still have a good Christmas, she said.
Pedram and Mina Yari and their 15-month-old daughter Melina also got to meet Mr. and Mrs. Claus on Thursday.
“Father Joe’s has given us an opportunity as a famiily to stay together, and they help families get back on their feet,” Pedram Yari said.
Yari works in construction and became homeless two years ago because he isn’t making enough for a rent. He said he is going to school to become an electrician and hopes he soon will be able to support his family.
The couple was especially happy that Melina received a toy piano from Santa because she already has displayed some musical talent.
“She’s a good kid and when she listens to music she claps along,” he said, adding that he believes his daughter “will do something in music” one day.
Besides the presents distributed Thursday, more presents are coming to children at the shelter from the Father Joe’s Villages Ladies Guild.
Vargas said members will take about 300 parents on a shopping spree at a Wal-Mart that will open early for them on Tuesday and Wednesday. Each parent will have $75 from the guild to spend on presents. Vargas said the guild was formed 35 years ago to help families at the shelter.