San Quentin’s veterans received an unexpected gift when Toys-for-Tots, their annual toy giveaway, was green-lighted for December 24 and 25.
Holiday spirit flowed through the visiting rooms as SQ residents who served in the military gave hundreds of toys to families with children visiting their incarcerated loved ones.
The annual Christmas event, a 31-year-long tradition, was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.
The toy giveaway was also canceled for 2021 until just days before Christmas, when Marine Corps veteran Carl Raybon, chair of the Veterans Group at San Quentin (VGSQ), got a call from SQ Community Resources Manager Madeline Tenney.
“‘We got toys!’ Madeline told me,” said Raybon. “I was really happy to learn the veterans would once again bring so much joy to kids at Christmastime.
At noon on Christmas Eve, the first group of visitors entering the prison found tables filled with toys in the children’s room.
“Oh my God, I’m super excited!” said eight-year-old Jesselyn, who picked out a couple of teddy bears to take home. “Presents are the best part of Christmas.”
Smiling with her mom, Lupita, Jesselyn expressed gratitude for being able to visit her dad, Thanh Tran, in person. They all thanked the San Quentin veterans for the toys.
Glistening gold, red and green garlands with big red bows adorned the visiting room windows and walls. Lights strung alongside glowed in holiday colors.
“This is beautiful,” said Bo Gentry, picking out toys with his wife of 42 years, Evie, for their four grandchildren for the first time.
“To be able to be here with my wife, ‘shopping’ for Christmas toys for our grandchildren is very, very nice.”
Gentry has been cutting hair in California prisons for 35 years, including as a resident barber in The Q’s West Block for the last decade.
There were so many toys, the veterans offered them to all families with children whether the kids were with them or not.
“We’re going to give them all away on Christmas,” said Lt. D. Campbell. “The kids can have anything they want.”
Footballs, soccer balls, and a basketball went quickly.
Campbell said the donated toys that could not be brought inside were being given to visiting children on their way out of the prison, including tennis rackets, baseball bats, a big dollhouse, a skateboard, perfume, and cologne.
“I got one of everything,” said 14-year-old Zavien Denard. “I don’t get to see my dad that much, so this feels great. A Christmas hug is a very special moment.”
“This is a merry Christmas…I picked out cards, board games, and Disney toys,” said Zyvhon, Zavien’s 11-year-old brother. “And I love spending time with my family.”
“Next year we’ll all be home for Christmas,” said Leelannee, the boys’ mother.
“I’m really looking forward to that — holidays without these confinements,” said Leelannee’s husband, Anthony Denard.
Pandemic-related requirements, including face masks, physical distancing, vaccinations and negative COVID testing, further restricted the limited contact normally allowed during the prison visits.
A brief hug at the beginning and end, as well as for a Christmas photo keepsake. was the only contact allowed. Capacity was reduced to about half, and time to just two hours. Children younger than two were not allowed to visit.
Yet the spirit of Christmas giving warmed many a heart during the holiday event.
“I’m overwhelmed by the generosity of the local people who donated all these toys,” said Army veteran Kevin Brinkman. “God bless their hearts for digging deep and honoring over three decades of tradition.
“It’s our privilege as veterans to give Christmas joy to fellow inmates and their children,” said Brinkman, who has volunteered with veterans groups throughout his six years in The Q.
Wearing a red-and-green hat with elf ears and a white fluffy ball on the tip, he said he was pleased that half the veterans who volunteered for Toys-for-Tots last time had since paroled and were home this Christmas.
“Everyone deserves humanity,” said Brinkman’s fellow veteran, Raybon, wearing his blue VGSQ hat.
“Bringing holiday festivities to other people with their loved ones is really something special. It always feels good.”
Raybon said the annual veterans’ toy giveaway is the only time he gets the visiting experience because his own family lives more than a thousand miles away.
“Have a holly-jolly Christmas, It’s the best time of the year,” sang the children’s-room television with a yuletide log burning in the fireplace on the screen. “Oh, by golly, have a holly-jolly Christmas this year.”
The sudden, unexpected development of this year’s event shortened the giveaway, which usually takes place over several weekends leading up to Christmas.
The result was a fast-paced, two-day snowstorm of toys for tots.
SQ veterans Raybon, Brinkman and Earl Orr stuffed dozens of bags full of toys on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for about 200 children with incarcerated loved ones, including some on Death Row.
“We have ginormous bags of toys…it’s exciting for the kids!” said CRM Office Technician A. Torres, describing the various donations from the local community. She helped Tenney coordinate the giveaway.
“Madeline goes above and beyond to get these events done,” said Torres.
The generous donations of toys came from local community groups including USMC in Monterey coordinated by formerly incarcerated veteran Ron Self, and Man 2 Man Urban Youth Advocate coordinated by Executive Director Stewart Perrilliat, according to Tenney.
“I’m so glad Community Resources reached out for the toys and came through to make this Christmas miracle possible,” said Raybon.
“This was a wonderful holiday surprise. We heard there wouldn’t be any toys this year,” said Floyd Collins, visiting with his wife Vanessa and their five-year-old grandson Adrian. “Thank you, veterans.”
“This is so exciting,” said Adrian
Like most inmate-led groups at The Q, VGSQ has not been able to resume its regular activities since the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. In previous years, VGSQ veterans held fundraisers to benefit a local Marines Toys-for-Tots program and coordinated the annual giveaway with the Marines’ donations of toys.
Even when it seemed there would be no toys for children visiting San Quentin this Christmas, a team of incarcerated veterans still volunteered to decorate the visiting room.
“I wanted to get in the Christmas spirit,” said retired Air Force Captain John Krueger, who served 20 years in the reserves.
Krueger said this was his first time decorating for Christmas during his 12 years of incarceration. His job was to get the lights working, replacing missing and broken bulbs. He enjoyed bringing the old strings of lights back to life.
“It was fun to brighten up the room for the kids. It felt like Christmas. And when we were done, it looked like Christmas.”
Krueger said his fellow veterans are a good group of people to work with. Pedro decorated the Christmas tree beautifully. Shorty was a big help livening up the rest of the room.
In one early-December day, five veterans transformed the SQ visiting room into a festive Christmas wonderland with snowflakes, stockings and shining stars, reviving 32 years of community-service tradition.
“This is awesome! It’s a real blessing,” said Gordon Kimbrough and his girlfriend, Paula Espinosa, picking out toys for their nieces and nephew.
“We’re so grateful for this whole Christmas experience.”
SQ resident John James was visited both days by his wife, Bianca James, and their nine-year-old son, Ant.
“Getting a soccer ball was fun,” said Ant. When asked what the best part of Christmas is, he replied, “Being with my dad.”
In-person visits with loved ones are the highlight of the holiday season for the incarcerated who are fortunate enough to get them. Of more than 3,000 residents currently in San Quentin State Prison, a couple of hundred received visitors during this two-day event.
“I’ll be home for Christmas…” crooned the television with the crackling fireplace on the screen as the visitors left their loved ones in prison. “If only in my dreams.”