The holiday spirit enriched the Main Visiting Room for five days in December. For two consecutive weekends, the fully decorated seven-foot Christmas tree was the busiest place at San Quentin. Inmates and their families took pictures in front of it.
For the 29th consecutive year, Marines from the San Bruno Recruitment Station donated toys for children of inmates at the prison. This year, the veterans at San Quentin put out over 500 toys for the kids, the biggest donation received in the last six years, said Gary Cooper, president of the San Quentin Veteran Group.
This annual event was a humbling reminder why San Quentin veterans share Christmas weekends with families. It brings joy and happiness watching children smile and say “Thank you” after selecting a gift in the toy room, Cooper said.
This year’s veteran’s group was represented by Cooper, Tony Burch, JoJo Robinson, Benny Werener, Zakee Hutchinson, Carl Raybon and Stan Baer, who all watched the children choose a gift. They had toys for kids of all ages.
While some children waited patiently in line to enter the toy room, others looked through the window glowing with smiles of excitement waiting for their turn. There were Tonka trucks, plastic cars, construction sets, battery-driven remote control toys, lunch pails, a large variety of stuffed dolls, Barbie dolls, monkeys, trivia and board games, puzzles and elephants. Other favorite selections on display were action heroes, boats, basketballs, soccer balls, baseballs and bats.
Julie Kane drove from San Jose with her two kids, Riley, 8 and Kai, 4, to see her best friend, Nick Bucci. Kai saw the Monster High dolls and got so excited she took the doll off the table and ran over to her mother, radiating with delight, saying, “Mommy, look.”
Inmate Sonny Nguyen’s 11-year-old nephew, Ethan, came from Colorado to see him for the first time. He was so impressed, all he could say was, “What a variety of toys.”
Several younger kids saw toys that captured their imagination, and were too excited to say anything. Four-year old Kamille likes the Beatles, so when she saw the Beatles doll, all her mother could say was, “She knows all their songs.”
Hutchinson said, “The kids bring us so much joy and happiness, it’s just so much fun giving something to someone who really appreciates it.”
Werner said, “This is my last year participating in the program here at San Quentin. I’ll be going to another prison before the next holiday. I’ll really miss it. But, this has always been an opportunity for me to give back to kids. I missed out on being a father during these times.”
“This is my way of sharing with others, just seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids whose eyes light up when they see the gift they like; what a great feeling,” Cooper said.
“This is my 10th year, and it seems to get better every year. It’s so encouraging to see the engaging. When asked about the meaning of Christmas, appreciate something so simple as a toy. It’s the giving back that I enjoy,” said Robinson.
Inmate Ladell Jackson and his wife, Elayne, said they hope that this will be his last Christmas in prison. “I am going to the board next year, and I’m looking forward to celebrating this joy outside of prison.”
“Christmas season is always the time to remind ourselves of how important family is,” inmate John Lam said.
“Holidays are important times of the year, regardless if you are inside or outside of prison. The best qualities shared during the holiday should be the same qualities we should share all year,” inmate Larry White said.
If an incarcerated veteran wants to learn more about VHV or if they or their family may qualify for additional benefits, please contact:
Mary Donovan, Executive Director of VHV
PO BOX 432
San Quentin, CA 94964
The VHV website is veteranshealingveterans.org