Downey Rotary ensures Christmas for 75 Downey third-graders

I shared a table with Imperial School, six boys and girls and their principal Peggy Meehan. Isaac, who is 8, sat right next to me, his eyes big with excitement.

How many brothers and sisters does Isaac have? He counted on his fingers as he named then, then spread his hand and said “five.” Then he began again, with more names, and pretty soon we had two hands full.

“I’ve been good and prayed a lot,” said Isaac. He rolled his eyes at the idea that Santa might be coming, but just the same he was hoping.

Annabelle sat on his other side and she seemed preoccupied, toying with her knife and fork and spoon. She was wearing a white tee shirt with “Life Is Beautiful” spelled out in sequins and flowers. Isaac was dressed in a red Spiderman tee shirt. “Your favorite action hero?” I asked and he nodded vigorously.

It was my good fortune to be seated at the Rotary Christmas Children’s Luncheon next to an articulate little boy, but with the din and my poor hearing I couldn’t understand much that he said. It didn’t matter. Isaac loved to talk and didn’t need any prompting from me.

Photo courtesy Downey Unified School District.

Photo courtesy Downey Unified School District.

“Do you like to read?” I asked him, and he nodded enthusiastically yes. “Good readers are good talkers,” I said “because they know lots of words.”

The children were served a lunch of chicken nuggets and mac’n cheese, and Isaac cleaned up every bite and then began on his box of tropical punch. Most of the others really had no appetite, excited and waiting for Santa.

President of Downey Rotary Greg Welch called the room to order and offered a prayer of thanks for the children visiting us, “their bright faces, loving hearts and eager minds.” Then we said the Pledge of Allegiance, at half our normal speed, because the children enunciate every syllable carefully to understood every word. Except for “indivisible,” that is, which lost a little clarity. That concept is not that easy to get, and the schools will be teaching that one through all the grades. Maybe for President’s Day they’ll let Abe Lincoln do the explaining about the Civil War.

Then for the songs – we all sang “Jingle Bells,” with car keys and water glasses for chimes. I had to tap on Shirley Johnson’s glass, because she had emptied hers and it made a much better ring than mine which was nearly full. Some of us grown-ups were excited too.

Will Medina announced he will be helping distribute some of the Spin Master Toys on Thursday in Santa Fe Springs through the department of Children and Family Services, Darren Dunaway’s organization, and invited volunteers to join him. What a labor of love and showing of the Rotary Spirit.

Each child had been given a yellow ticket for the raffle, and the winner of the first number was one of the young women principals, in a black sweater with Frosty the Snowman and a snowflake center front. Each of Downey’s 13 elementary schools was invited to send six third graders, the principal and teachers, and they all enthusiastically complied.

Next call brought a little boy who literally ran through the room to the podium. Big applause for him. Last number belonged to Jaimee Sul Baker, cheery in a red sweater and bright red patent leather shoes to match. We have Jaimee to thank for the superior quality toys, but she didn’t win more than a token either.

Photo courtesy Downey Unified School District.

Photo courtesy Downey Unified School District.

Dr. John Garcia, superintendent of the Downey Unified School District, took over the emcee duties and introduced the teachers and principals who had brought our little guests, and many of the staff from the DUSD office.

Then Dr. John called for “Jingle Bells” again. Where were Debbie and Dan Fox, our songmasters, to lead us in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which we had rehearsed so often? John urged us to sing out, so our “special” guest would know he was invited, but there was a little confusion till John gave the mike to Chad Berlingheiri, whose soaring solo tenor, singing “I’ll be Home For Christmas,” quieted the room.

The song, which I remember when it appeared in 1943, is sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas writing his family a letter home. As Chad got to the chorus and hit the high notes, all attention was on him. And then, just as Chad got to the melancholy final phrase, with the soldier saying, "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams," the sound of bells and “Ho Ho Ho” told us our surprise guest had appeared, and he was no other than Santa Claus.

The jolly old elf had a wonderful real white beard and moustache so that children could see he must be the real deal. But let’s hope that by next Christmas, 2019, our own Wayne Wilcox will be back from his two-year stint in Argentina, again playing the role he loves to do.

Dr. John called the first school “The Mustangs of Rio San Gabriel,” and Rich Strayer in his red elf hat came to help Santa distribute toys. After the Mustangs came The Bulldogs of Imperial Elementary School, our table. When Isaac went up, I saw he had on long shorts, with red trim, but he on his chair was also a black hoodie to keep him warm.

First each child went to Santa and spoke with him, and Santa took time to listen to each of the 75 or so children. Dan Fox was stationed right in front of Santa and took a souvenir picture of each.

The girls got a wonderful Spin Master Little Charmer doll, either Lavender, Hazel or Posy, each with long acrylic hair and a sturdy little brush to groom her with. When I told Annabelle that my little girl had once had a Mary Poppins doll with a pony tail and a hairbrush, and an umbrella with a parrot’s head, her eyes brightened.

Photo courtesy Downey Unified School District.

Photo courtesy Downey Unified School District.

Boys got a Spin Master Hot Wheels Monster Mutt race car, the kind that goes faster than the speed of sound and they were painted with flames.

Then each came to Shirley sitting in a big comfortable chair for a kind word and a KitKat from the voluminous sack she brought. Shirley has frequently sponsored charity events for abused kids. Each child also received a jumbo size sturdy zip-lock bag, filled with another toy, more candy and a stained-glass kit, then went back to their seats.

The stained-glass kits were appreciated by the teachers. “That fits with our STEAM program,” Principal Peggy Meehan said. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math. “The YMCA is wonderful about bringing us craft supplies. This week the children are making ornaments to take home, like fingerprint balls for the tree. We appreciate the outside help.”

The children waited till their teachers told them they could take off the Christmas wrap, which our members applied so carefully last week.

Then the Panthers of Maude Price were called, and so it went for all 13 schools. The teachers expected the main toy’s sturdy plastic packaging would last intact till they got home, but as soon as one child opened theirs, everyone did, and they loved playing with them. Boys were zooming their Hot Wheels at their place at the table, and little girls could be seen talking to their dollies and re-arranging their hair.

At our table Amy came over to show me the package of charms she had gotten, but Annabelle, who hadn’t opened hers, was still pensive, arranging the knives and forks. Some children take the unopened toys home to share with brothers and sisters who will get nothing at Christmas.

“We have 13 wonderful elementary schools in Downey” said Assistant Superintendent Roger Brossmer, who sat with Jim Mogen at a table full of children. “They are so well behaved,” I said and Roger nodded. “They’re carefully chosen, for their needs,” said Jim.

Boys and girls were dressed in colorful action figure tee shirts and girls wore sparkly sequin tees. One had a matching red and black checked top and bottom. No one wore a party dress two sizes too big, or had a suit coat or tie, as this reporter can remember from times past. More informal.

To amuse themselves, Amy and a friend at my table were playing Scissors, Paper, Rock. That takes coordination and quick reaction time, I thought, because at each throw, the winner reached out and tapped the loser before going on. They laughed and played, and then they added a complication, two-handed throws from each. Still they kept moving swiftly, the tapping redoubling and quick new choices constantly being made.

And then just when I thought their coordination was at its limits, little blond-haired Paul joined them and there were three of them, throwing six little fists and tapping away. What a good way to use up all that energy, I thought.

One has a stereotype of disadvantaged children also having dull eyes and wan faces, due to poor nutrition and lack of stimulation. But obviously the schools don’t lose track of these kids when they go home. They are very much healthy and engaged. They are very much healthy and engaged.

Going across the room I sat with the Gallatin School contingent. One of the little girls at the table offered me a bite of her Kit Kat, a generous act. These children are selected, Roger had told me, because of their extreme neediness. Other than this, they won’t have any Christmas at all.

Rich and Don and Shirley stayed at their posts till the last child, and Mike Pohlen helped Dan, both grandfathers, with getting each child to focus and smile when Dan took their pictures. President Greg and Treasurer Barbara Lamberth, who wore in a glittery blue and black sweater with her white pants, sat back and watched with approval. Barbara oversaw the event and the decorations for the table, red bells and a scattering a little peppermint canes.

Santa had appeared at about 12:25, and by 1:40 the children had all left to go back to their classrooms. No Rotary group picture this year. Nary a crumb was left.

But I do believe Santa was heard to observe, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night.”