Presents were collected through the Edward Boss Prado Foundation

Published in the December 26 – January 8, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life

Retired sheriff deputy Melanie Mikeska volunteers as an “elf” with the Edward Boss Prado Foundation by loading a truck to take toys to local families in need. Photo by Marty Cheek

Gilroy mother Stephanie stood as the first person in line at the “Toys For Our Own” event held Saturday, Dec. 15, at the Mt. Madonna YMCA’s satellite studio in a shopping center on First Street. She and other parents enjoyed hot chocolate as they waited.

At precisely 9:15 a.m., someone started up a stereo to play festive holiday tunes and the doors opened. Stephanie stepped inside to be warmly greeted by two volunteers at the registration table. They gave her three tickets to be exchanged later for gift items placed on the tables surrounding the walls of the studio. The items had been collected during the past month from generous South Valley residents who donated them to the nonprofit Edward Boss Prado Foundation.

Browsing among the books, games, stuffed dolls, toys and other gifts for children stocked neatly on the tables, Stephanie found a doctor set for her 11-year-old daughter, Mia, and a plastic truck for her 4-year-old son, Junior. She kept searching for the perfect present for her 10-month old daughter, Alexia.

Stephanie was happy knowing the toys would “put a smile on their faces” on Christmas morning, she said.

Volunteers wrap Christmas gifts for children collected through the Edward Boss Prado Foundation. Photo by Marty Cheek

The Prado Foundation’s program Cecelia’s Closet in conjunction with the YMCA places cardboard barrel containers in Morgan Hill and Gilroy where they collect the toys, said Enrique Diaz, a member of the YMCA board and a Gilroy Unified School District trustee.

“They’re all age appropriate toys,” he said. “It’s just the whole idea that the kids don’t feel left out and the parents don’t feel stressed out about providing toys for their kids during the holidays. Cecelia’s Closet does a lot for the Gilroy community. A couple of weeks ago she gave out backpacks to all the kids at Las Animas Park.”

Parents walk in and they’re registered to get a ticket for each child they want to find a gift for, said Salvador Cortez, community program director II. Once they get a ticket they’re able to “shop” in the “store.” By the front door are plenty of books for children of different reading levels. Another table holds stuffed dolls such as a Minion with a goofy grin and an Angry Bird with a scowl.

“Once their shopping is complete and they’re ready, they can walk up to one of the wrapping stations and have their toys wrapped,” Cortez said. “And they can even get hot chocolate.”

To protect the fun of their surprise on Christmas morning, children are not allowed in the shopping area. In the Straw Hat Pizza restaurant next door, about 20 kids stay active under the watchful eyes of YMCA staff doing arts and crafts while their parents shop.

A team of 20 volunteers help out the 300 families participating in the event, now in its third year. A total of 400 toys are given out at the Gilroy site, said Andrea Nicolette, executive director of the Mt. Madonna YMCA

Cecelia Ponzini founded the Edward Boss Prado Foundation in memory of her son. The all-volunteer nonprofit has 15 programs. Its annual holiday “Toys For Our Own” donation drive works closely with Morgan Hill and Gilroy public schools, the Voices Academy charter school, and the Mt. Madonna YMCA to make sure all local families in need can provide the joy of a Christmas gift to their young ones.

“Cecelia is a saint,” Nicolette said. “She does the foundation work with the Morgan Hill schools, and we have all the after-school programs in partnership with the Gilroy Unified School District and Power School. She entrusts us that all those students are invited in and that’s what we do. We sign up the neediest children. We get the migrant list from the school district as well and those kids are added to the list and their moms and dads pick up their toys.”

The Prado Foundation also makes sure the event is done with dignity for the families. Often, parents need to make the choice of paying the rent over buying their children gifts for the holidays. And it’s human nature for kids in households  with limited financial means to feel envy when they return to their classrooms after the holidays and hear about the toys their wealthier classmates received.

“For parents, it’s the shame of not being able to provide a nice toy,” Nicolette said. “We’re so close to Christmas and if you haven’t got your child a toy it’s because you’re probably in need. I feel blessed and my board feels blessed just to be a part of it. Cecelia does a lot to help the local families.”

Three years ago, a father came in and put his name on the list to register. He picked out several toys but didn’t realize they were free and so was going to give volunteers some money. He donated money for the toys, which touched Nicolette’s heart.

“I literally lost it,” she said. “This is my favorite event of the year. We do a lot of events and programs for the kids throughout the year, but this is the only event where we really focus on the parents.”

The event helps the YMCA strengthen their relationship with the parents to better meet their needs, she said.

“I was here one year and a woman was crying,” Nicolette said. “She said she wasn’t able to buy gifts for the kids, this was the only way she was able to get gifts. I’m proud to work for an organization that provides for people who aren’t able to meet that need.”

Another aspect of the annual give-away is the volunteers wrapping the toys and books, she said. That comes from personal experience for Nicolette.

“When I was a single parent, that was a really expensive piece to have to provide,” she said. “It’s fun for the kids to open something and be surprised. That’s why wrapping the present is so important.”

Ponzini and her two great grandchildren, Jimmy and Adrieah Hernandez, visited the event that morning. She wanted to make sure they learned through the experience a lesson on the meaning of the Christmas season, that the holidays is about sharing our bounty with others who are less fortunate and help them to feel better about their lives. One reason her foundation is involved  is because Ponzini remembers never getting a Christmas gift as a child, even when she was in foster care.

“It just makes me feel good. This is very close to our heart,” she said of the toy drive. “And then my son, Edward, loved Christmas. He used to get the gifts for my daughters and open them up and switch them if he thought Lori should get the red and Dori should get the blue. He loved Christmas.”