Santa Claus and Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District board President Gloria Grijalva (center) hand out gift bags to one of the 70 families the district adopted for the holidays during a distribution event at Calexico’s community center on Friday, Dec. 10. Each family received toys for the children, pizza and wings that night, and a voucher for a full meal at Rosa’s Plane Food. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
CALEXICO — Commemorating 70 years in existence, the Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District has adopted 70 families for the holidays, and on Friday evening, Dec. 10, some 15 of those families picked up their goodies — gifts for the children, a quick dinner to take home, and a gift certificate for a sit-down meal later this month.
The distribution event, set up walk-through-style due to COVID-19 safety precautions, was at the Calexico community center complex on Dool Avenue, and was organized to accommodate all 70 families.
Families quickly came in, picked up one toy per child from Santa Claus, grabbed pizza and wings to eat for dinner that night, and a gift certificate that will allow them a dinner for the family prepared by Rosa’s Plane Food this month, Heffernan board President Gloria Grijalva said on Friday.
The idea to adopt these 70 families came together well over a month ago, according to Grijalva. Yet due to the restrictions the district has on how it spends its money — district funds collected through property taxes can only be spent on healthcare — Grijalva said the cost was borne of fundraising.
“We said, ‘well, why don’t we do something for the community?’ … So, what we did is we asked for donations … we’re so happy we got so much so we’re able to serve the 70 families and the kids,” she said.
Around late October and early November, Grijalva said the district sent donation letters to doctors’ offices, clinics and some private donors, and Heffernan was able to amass $14,000.
“In the letter we sent out, (saying we’re) celebrating our 70th anniversary, we said the way we want to celebrate it is through their donations to be able to serve our community. And a lot of them responded to (the letters) right away,” Grijalva said.
The families were provided by the Calexico Family Resource Center, which is part of the Calexico Unified School District. Hortencia Armendariz, an administrator at the school district and coordinator of the Family Resource Center, compiled the names of the children and their family and obtained the gifts with the donations from Heffernan.
On Friday afternoon, Armendariz and her son, Camilo Garcia Jr., packed between 170 and 175 wrapped toys in a Calexico Unified School District van and trucked them off to the Calexico community center for the event, which had been decorated in the reds and greens of Christmas by Heffernan’s staff and directors.
All manner of families and children were selected for the event. Grijalva said one family had 13 children and each would receive a toy.
During the holidays, Armendariz is a much sought-after figure when organizations look to provide toys and help to the neediest. The Family Resource Center is a holistic organization, tending to all needs of the students at the school district, and that extends to their families in many cases, so looking after them during the holidays is a given.
“We when we have agencies that want to help and want to donate, they always ask me because while I have the children, right, and I have the families,” Armendariz said earlier Friday, before the event. “I never disclose the names of the families to the agencies. All I tell them is what grade and what age and what gender these children are, so they can purchase the gifts.
“These 170 gifts were purchased without really them knowing the name, they just know that they bought for boys or girls and the age,” she said.
These are a wide range of students and families served. Some are children in the foster-care system, and some are children and families experiencing homelessness, Armendariz said. She added the process to select families can vary; with the 70 for Heffernan, she said she asked each school site within the district to help identify five to 10 families each.
This is a busy time for Armendariz, who is always a key player in the annual Kids ‘N’ Badges event from the Calexico Police Department, too. Scheduled for Tuesday morning, Dec. 14, Armendariz said the Family Resource Center identified 36 for participation.
Even within those situations, she said she must categorize the level of need. The youths often selected for Kids ‘N’ Badges are some with the least, since Kids ‘N’ Badges provides the most, that is, breakfast and a shopping spree at Walmart.
The 2021 holiday season has been a banner one for donations, Armendariz said, but clearly with the pandemic still upon the Valley, the need is great.
“For Thanksgiving, we had the (Imperial Regional) Detention Center provide Thanksgiving meals for 30 families. And then we had Pastor (Frank) Zazueta (Christ Community Church) provide turkeys for 50 families. Calexico Wellness provided 10 $50 gift cards, a private donor donated 10 $50 gift cards. That was just for Thanksgiving,” Armendariz said.
“And then now, for Christmas, 175 children will get gifts and and these are 70 families because they are celebrating their 70th anniversary,” she added.
On top of that, Armendariz said the Family Resource Center provides students and families for Calexico Neighborhood House and Calexico Rotary Club, of which she is a member. Sure Helpline will also provide for a certain number of Calexico youths. As will the fundraising efforts of the Calexico High School senior class.
Another sign that the need is greater this year, Armendariz said, is there are even more children that did not make the list for Kids ‘N’ Badges who will hopefully be matched to donors.
Meanwhile, although the Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District distribution was set up for 70 families, there were enough toys and hot food leftover for more about 55 families, but what remains will make it to their intended targets.
Grijalva said Armendariz took the toys back to the Family Resource Center, where they will be distributed to the children on the list who didn’t show. The Rosa’s Plane Food gift certificates will make it to the families as well.
As for the pizza and wings, it was a Merry Christmas for public safety staff on duty last night and members of Calexico’s unhoused community. Grijalva said the food was distributed to the Calexico Fire Department, and possibly the Police Department, and Heffernan planned to take some to those on the streets.
“I just am happy that our community responded to a good cause. At least we’ll have 70 families that’ll be happy and grateful this year since our pandemic is almost 2 years old … and a lot of them lost their jobs,” Grijalva added. “This is a great help. We’re just happy to do it.”