Needy kids share their secret wishes with Santa

This Christmas, Junior Alonzo would love some new work boots but his wife, Esmeralda Dominguez, says money’s too tight. But thanks to a local charity, the struggling Escondido couple’s three children will have their Christmas wishes granted.

On Tuesday, the Alonzo children — Giovanni, 9, Joshua, 7, and Abigail, 5 — wrote letters to Santa Claus and posted them in a special mailbox at Interfaith Community Services’ Neighborhood Healthcare center on Date Street in Escondido.

Those and other wishes will be fulfilled this week by Santa’s helpers at the Larry Himmel Neighborhood Foundation, which is hosting its second annual “Letters to Santa” event with Interfaith this month.

Last year, the charity spent nearly $4,000 fulfilling the Christmas wishes of nearly 40 children whose families are transitioning from homelessness to permanent housing. Most live in Interfaith’s transitional apartment on Aster Street in Escondido.

This year, as many as 65 children will have their wishes granted when a costumed Santa arrives next Tuesday with their wrapped gifts, said Jacque Saulpaw, Interfaith’s housing services program manager.

Miles Himmel launched the foundation last year with the goal of doing small community outreach programs for needy San Diegans in the name of his father, longtime KFMB-TV reporter Larry Himmel, who died in 2014 just four months after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He was 68.

Himmel, 25, said the Santa letters program is one of his favorite events because he loves seeing the children light up when Santa arrives. Even though most of these children have endured great hardship and upheaval during the past few years, Himmel said the gifts take a backseat to St. Nick (who will be played by Bruce Patch, who was Larry Himmel’s longtime cameraman at KFMB).

“Before this, I didn’t realize how much these kids love seeing Santa Claus,” Himmel said. “It’s Santa, not the gifts, that is the real magic for them. You can’t help falling in love with them when you see their reactions.”

On his list, Joshua Alonzo asked Santa for a toy military helicopter. Giovanni wants Legos and Mega Pokemon playing cards, and Abigail hopes for a magic wand, Barbies and a bicycle. All three children also asked for shoes, socks and shirts, something most children wouldn’t wish for over toys.

Their proud dad, Junior Alonzo, said his children know what they really need and they’ve learned to be practical. Alonzo and Dominguez moved their family into Interfaith’s Aster Street apartments about six months ago after they lost the home they were sharing with Junior’s extended family.

“Sometimes we hit these bumps in the road,” Dominguez said. “At times like these, it’s just important to be together as a family.”

Two tables away, Robin Moore, 30, watched her four children seal up their letters and pop them in the mailbox. Two years ago, she was left destitute when her husband died and she had no job, savings or family to fall back on.

The Moores spent a year in Interfaith’s transitional housing program and recently moved into permanent subsidized housing that she pays for with her salary as a server and catering manager at a Mexican restaurant.

This is the second time her children — Kendall, 13, Tison, 8, McKenna, 6, and Haylee, 3 — have participated in the Santa letters program.

“It was so amazing last year. My kids were overwhelmed by everything they got,” Moore said. “This is huge for me because I live paycheck to paycheck. My kids are involved in band, soccer and dance lessons. There’s just no money left over for gifts. This will make Christmas a lot brighter.”

One of the most excited children at Tuesday’s letter-writing event was 7-year-old Cierra Wright. She could hardly contain her enthusiasm as she wrote her list with a large felt-tip pen. She’s hoping Santa brings her a Power Ranger, a Paw Patrol puppy named “Chase,” Barbie makeup and “anything blue.”

Cierra is the oldest child of Phillip Wright and Gennean Bailey, who moved into the transitional program May 8 after a period of homelessness. Although both of them work, the cost of living in San Diego is too high to provide a good life for Cierra and their 17-month-old daughter, Aliya. They’re hoping to save enough money this winter to relocate to Illinois where Wright has family and housing is cheaper.

“What they’re doing here is so wonderful,” Wright said. “They’ve done so much for my family and Cierra is so excited for Christmas and Santa.”

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