It was toys and smiles all around as dozens of children came to visit their dads in San Quentin State Prison at Christmas-time.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Tony Burch, vice chair of the veterans group that sponsored the Toys for Tots event in its thirtieth year.
“I just love to see the expressions on the faces of the kids,” said Army veteran Garvin Robinson, long-time secretary and treasurer of the Veterans Group at San Quentin.
Robinson admitted that sometimes he has as much fun as the kids playing with the toys.
“I can see they got the spirit in them — the joy on their faces shines as bright as on Christmas Day. It reminds me of me when I was a kid,” said Army Vietnam veteran Adam Sinegal.
Hundreds of toys and smiles of joy greeted the children as they entered the festively decorated San Quentin visiting rooms to visit their inmate family members and friends.
The toy event is scheduled for the weekends before Christmas and on Christmas Day each year.
Robinson, who has been incarcerated for 33 years and has three sons of his own, said about the toy giveaway, “It fixes me – I can put a smile on a kid’s face. This is the best thing I’ve done in my life.”
“We treat all kids equally,” said Marine Corps veteran Stanley Baer. “It ain’t the kid’s fault,” he said about the children visiting their incarcerated loved ones. He explained that many of the children come to visit inmates who have been convicted of serious crimes with lengthy, life or even death sentences. “They’re the most grateful because it’s so unexpected.”
Baer helped a young girl pick out the doll she wanted. After consulting with her mom, the girl embraced the doll with both arms and a beaming smile. Baer commented, “That moment right there – that one genuine moment – made the whole day worthwhile.”
“Some of these kids are like family to us”
“Some of these kids are like family to us,” Marine veteran Gary Cooper said, “We’ve seen them grow up over the years.” Cooper said it reminds him of the joy he and his own kids shared when shopping and opening presents during holidays past.
On their way to the main visiting room, visitors walked by the children’s playroom. Looking in, they were surprised to see tables stacked with hundreds of toys for the visiting children,
Reactions included: “Oh, look at that, Michael. Wow! Yay! I want that!”
Each child entered to choose the toy they wanted to take home, but with so many options, which one? The choices included a wide range – from the Millennium Falcon, Kylo Ren’s Tie Silencer, BB-8 and R2-D2, to dolls, play walkers and play mats for toddlers and infants. From basketballs, soccer and footballs to high-tech electronics like the Vtech Alphabet Apple and the Leap Frog learning tablet.
“I wanna take that!” said one young girl. With parent’s approval, she was given her toy, and with a huge smile said “My Num Noms – Yum!” She then began dancing joyously, repeating, “I got Num Noms!”
One inmate with his child said, “I used to get so excited,” remembering Christmases from his own childhood. Another said about the game “Operation,” “That game’s been around since when I was a kid.” Other games that have been favorites for generations included Sorry, Monopoly, Connect 4 and Trouble.
The veterans group’s staff sponsor, Rachael Murray, a CDCR employee, worked with the SQ veterans group to put the event together. “Rachael was instrumental,” said veteran Baer. She drove a van to the Toys for Tots warehouse where it was filled – front to back, floor to ceiling – with the toys she then brought to the prison.
Murray said she enjoys working with the veterans because they are all team players. She said the toy giveaway “always has been and always will be about being able to bring some joy to the kids … making sure they have something to smile about.”
VGSQ members Earl Orr and Samuel Gaskins gave out the toys in the other visiting room in San Quentin’s H-Unit.
The veterans group also does food sale events inside San Quentin to raise funds to donate to the Toys for Tots program — usually several thousand dollars each year, according to VGSQ member Fred Cole.
This year’s donation was under $2,000 because of a statewide suspension of food sales in prisons, said Cole. He added that VGSQ hopes the sales will be reinstated.
Dozens of children receive toys each day during the event. One of them was 5-year-old Troy Jackson. He happily picked out a toy with his grandfather, Kenji Jackson, whom he came to visit.
Ten-year-old Riley and 5-year-old Kai, visiting their “Uncle Nick,” chose Num Noms and slime to take home with them. “I wanted the slime,” said Riley, as Kai described how he would stretch the slime and make noises with it: “You can do this.”
Thirteen-year-old Jayla Watts, daughter of Jerome Watts, was happy to get a toy but said that the best thing about Christmas is “spending time with my family.” She continued, “Even though this is a prison, I still enjoy spending this time with my dad and my family in here – it feels like it’s not a prison.” Jayla’s dad, Jerome, said that the visit is the highlight of his holiday season.
The grandmother of another visiting child said that she was excited to see all the toys given away because it was completely unexpected. She said in 13 years of visiting her son, “in so many prisons – this is the first time I’ve seen anything like this. It’s a real blessing.”