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Making Christmas wishes come true for Lathrop kids
Angel Hernandez reacts after seeing his present - a 3D Glow Board - presented to him Wednesday at the 12th annual Lathrop-Manteca Firefighters Association Christmas for Kids party. - photo by HIME ROMERO

LATHROP – Gloria Rodriguez looked around Grace Community Church Wednesday night – at the smiling faces, the exuberant children and the overflowing holiday cheer – and felt grateful.

When she walked into the Lathrop-Manteca Firefighters Assocation’s Christmas for Kids event with her own family, Rodriguez saw more than a few people that she knew from around town and at her children’s school. Getting the chance to celebrate with them just days before Christmas reminded her of the tradition of “Las Posadas” in Mexico where families spend the nine days prior visiting the houses of friends and neighbors and celebrating the impending holiday.

And being in a place where she got to see her children receive gifts from people in the community, she said, was a blessing in and of itself.

“I think it’s great because it’s something that the kids don’t expect. It’s so nice,” she said. “It’s really great to be able to come here and see people that we know. We’re thankful for everything.”

Back in October Lathrop-Manteca firefighter-engineers Kevin Wallace and Tim Kovacs began the process of putting together the 12th annual event. They contacted community businesses for donations and organizing the logistics of a function that provides toys and gifts for 60 children from low-income families in the community.

All of the screening for qualifying families, Wallace said, is done by the local Head Start program, and the community takes care of the gifts by picking a name off the tree inside of the Lathrop Senior Center – donated this year by Lathrop Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos.

While it’s a lot of work for all involved, Wallace – who has worked hand-in-hand with Kovacs for the last six years on nearly all aspects of the production – says that it all pays off when Santa shows up the night of the event and the smiles start flowing on the faces of the kids.

“We enjoy giving back and helping people in the community – especially right now with the economy the way that it is and how it has impacted people economically,” Wallace said. “But it’s in the spirit of Christmas. At the end of the day it’s all about the smiles on the faces of the kids – they’re what this event is all about. When you see them happy with gifts in their hands running up to their parents – that’s good stuff.”

It wasn’t the children that walked away with something either.

Through private donations and a gift from the Lathrop-Manteca Firefighters Local #4317, each family ended up taking home a full Christmas dinner that they’ll get to prepare on Sunday. It’s something, Wallace said, and that helps extend the holiday cheer from the event a little bit further.

According to Wallace, community businesses like Mountain Mike’s Pizza, Target and Baskin-Robbins all pitched in to help out this year, and Grace Community Church and Pastor Bill Barnett once again donated use of their facility.

Without their support, he said, it wouldn’t be possible to help those in need the way they’re able to.

“We’re grateful that we live in a community that’s willing to go out of their way to make an event like this possible,” Wallace said. “You just have to look around to see the benefits tonight. It’s what this time of year is all about.”