Veterans’ Toys for Tots continues to warm the hearts of many
The cheer of Christmas giving filled the San Quentin State Prison visiting rooms as children celebrated the holidays with their incarcerated loved ones in December.
“We got absolutely excited!” said 11-year-old Omar Elias, who came to the prison to visit his uncle Ramon Ruelas. Elias and his younger brothers Ismael and Danny were three of about 100 children who got toys during San Quentin’s Annual Holiday Toy Program.
“You should visit me more and get more presents,” said Ruelas, laughing with his nephews. During his 10-year incarceration , they had visited before but this was their first time getting toys.
The other prisons where Ruelas was before coming to San Quentin in 2018 didn’t have toy giveaways for children, but incarcerated veterans at San Quentin have kept the Toys for Tots tradition of holiday giving alive for 31 years.
“It’s a really great act. I really appreciate it!” said nine-year-old Danny to the veterans who gave them the toys.
“Seeing the little kids’ eyes light up when they see the toys really gives me hope,” said Marine Corps veteran Carl Raybon, the new chair- man of the Veterans Group at San Quentin (VGSQ). The 35-member group of incarcerated veterans organizes the toy giveaway each year.
Raybon was one of six veterans wearing pointy red and green striped elf hats and blue VGSQ hats who offered toys and holiday cheer to every family with children visiting during the weekends before Christmas and on Christmas Day.
A banner hung across the main visiting room declaring “Merry Christmas.” Snow- flakes, lights and garlands with red bows adorned the walls. Incarcerated fathers, uncles and granddads brought their visiting little loved ones into the children’s playroom to pick out toys to take home.
The tables were full of toys to choose from, including puzzles, charades, trivia games, Candy Land, Frozen II character sets, Marvel Avengers Black Widow and other hero figures, Vibe metallic spinners, watch and wallet sets and “Make Your Own Slime.”
A giant skee-ball game was the first toy to go. “Thank you,” said the smiling little girl. The first boy chose a Spalding NBA basketball and said, “Thank you, Merry Christmas.”
“I have so much fun do- ing this,” said Army veteran Kevin Brinkman, a VGSQ member since arriving at The Q in 2015. “It’s not just giving back, It’s giving forward.” Brinkman helped decorate and gave out toys for his third year.
“It’s all about the children,” said 33-year-old Marine Corps veteran Brian Corder, the new VGSQ Vice Chairman. “It’s a beautiful thing that even here
in prison children and families can get a Christmas experience, or at least something close.”
“It’s a blessing,” said Sergio Alvarez, who was visiting with his sisters, nieces and nephew. “We’ll do this next weekend too, so all the family can visit.” Visiting with his family is the highlight of his holiday season. Alvarez was visiting with his nephew for the first time in his seven-year incarceration.
“Woo woo!” said 2-year-old Jaylah, Alvarez’s niece, smiling and laughing as she grabbed a toy unicorn that began playing music and flashing lights. “It’s a nice surprise,” said Javyn, Alvarez’s 11-year-old nephew. It was the first time they and 13-year-old Aiyana got toys in prison.
Festively dressed families smiled for photos in front of a 7-foot Christmas tree deco- rated with garlands, balls, and a star on top.
“Every visit is a celebration, but today is a real joy,” said Jemain Hunter. He was celebrating his first Christmas together with his wife Kenya and their 19-month- old granddaughter Nayani.
“It’s a true blessing to see what lights her up—just like on the outside,” Hunter said, enjoying his granddaughter’s excitement. Nayani ran back and forth in front of the playroom and toys, smiling and giggling, and delivering sodas from the vending ma- chines to “Papa.”
“Santa Claus is coming to town,” sang a stuffed rein- deer with red bows and bells on its antlers. “Merry Christ- mas!”
VGSQ staff sponsor Rachael Murray walked in with dozens more toys, including LiteBrite, Chutes and Ladders, KerPlunk, Battleship, dolls, Legos, Transformers’ Bumblebee, and Hot Wheels. She said that the San Bruno Marines Toys for Tots program donated hundreds of toys for this year’s San Quentin event.
VGSQ member Earl Orr gave out the toys in the other visiting room in The Q’s H-Unit. Children visiting loved ones on Death Row also got to pick out toys to take home.
“Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces brings me happiness,” said Army veteran Adam Sinegal. “It brings back good memories of Christmas with my children. I wish I was with them now.”
Danny “Heavy” Pita Jr. was visiting with his fiancée Shawna, and his little sister Harmonie. “I’m happy because I’m with my sister for the first time in about two years,” he said with a smile.
“Getting a toy was a nice surprise, but getting to see my brother is my favorite Christmas gift,” said 10-year- old Harmonie, leaning on her big brother.
After five years at San Quentin, the Holiday Toy Program is something of a Christmas tradition for Vin- cent O’Bannon and his family. He was celebrating with his wife Cynthia, daughter Autumn, and grandsons Zorion and Zy’ir.
“This family time is so happy, and toys add to the excitement,” said the boys’ mother Autumn. Three-year-old Zorion shook his head yes, smiling and said, “I love my paw paw.”
Maria, a teenager, and 4-year-old Frida came in with their mom Maribel to visit their brother Jose Sanchez.
Maria helped her little sister pick out toys: “Cuál quieres” “Cuál otro” “Segura?” (Which do you want? Which other one? Are you sure?)
The Sanchezes said that be- ing together at Christmas time is important for their family. The Christmas before, Jose was in county jail. “Me siento mejor hoy porque el año pasa- do no pudimos abrazarnos por la ventana,” said Maribel. (I feel better today because last year we couldn’t hug through the window.)
By the end of the day’s Christmas excitement, 1-year- old Ja’Mal was sound asleep
in his father Jonathan Weems’ arms. Big sister Ja’Leia said, “I’m just happy to see my family.” When her mom Danisha asked about getting a toy in prison, the 4-year-old replied, “Yep, I got a Magic Mat.”
As the visiting hours ended each day at 2:00 p.m., the children came back to the play- room to pick up their toys to take home. There were many smiles, many thank you’s, and even more Felices Navidades.
Families hugged and kissed once more and parted with toys in their hands and the warmth of the holiday spirit in their hearts.