First published in the Dec. 25 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
By Jonathan Williams
On an early Friday morning in December, Santa decided to trade his sleigh for a fire truck and a police escort.
Joining Santa were volunteers from Glendale Memorial Hospital, Glendale Unified School District officials, police officers, firefighters and the Los Angeles Galaxy. The festive group donated presents to nearly 500 students from Cerritos Elementary School last week.
Toys of all different types — science kits, soccer balls, games, art supplies — all came from personalized wish lists the students crafted.
Glendale Fire Engine 23 paraded into the heart of the playground, along with two Glendale police motorcycles. The sound of sirens echoed down Brand Boulevard as students — clad in Santa hats — cheered for Santa when he stepped down from the motorcade.
Jill Welton, president and chief executive officer of Glendale Memorial, fondly recalled when she first participated in this event after joining the hospital three years ago.
“Best event ever,” Welton said.
Glendale Memorial and GUSD have a blossoming partnership, with the hospital providing mentorships and internships for high school students. The institution’s partnership with Cerritos, just a few blocks away, dates back more than a decade with the “Adopt-A-Student” program. Starting with only a couple of families, the program now includes virtually all of the students.
“You’re going to get me emotional here,” said Welton. “Just to be able to partner to make sure each kid gets a gift, that we’re able to be a part of it, and they know we’re there for them and their families, it means everything.”
Diana Hernandez, the first-year principal at Cerritos, said during her first few weeks, officials from Glendale Memorial called her to begin planning the event.
“My big thing was that I want to make sure our community and my students feel the community partners are here to help to support them,” Hernandez said. “We wanted to make as big of an event as we could for them.”
Hernandez said because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were required to hold the event outside. She added it was an easy decision to make after seeing all of the additional support.
“It was just about making sure our students, especially because of the pandemic, had a wonderful holiday season,” Hernandez said. “How great is it for them to get a present but actually pick from the list the student requests.”
Hernandez said holidays can be a difficult time for many families at Cerritos, which has one of GUSD’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged student bodies.
“It really helps to promote the spirit of Santa,” Hernandez said. “For me, it’s just so wonderful to experience the holiday season through the eyes of a child. Many of them still believe. Some of them don’t but they still enjoy it even if they don’t believe in Santa. It’s nice to get a present and it’s nice to be in the holiday spirit.”
GUSD Superintendent Vivian Ekchian helped to pass out gifts with the dozens of other officials and made an announcement honoring the partnership with all of the groups.
“This one in particular is incredibly special,” Ekchian said. “We see the joy, in real-time, on our students’ faces. It wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have these great partners who collected all of these gifts. … As we know, the pandemic has hit us really hard and many of the families may not have the resources to purchase gifts for their children. However, this is a way for us to build bridges with our community and trust.”
Efrain Alvarez, the 19-year-old midfielder for the Galaxy and the youngest player ever to sign in the United Soccer League, said he is actively involved with work in the community.
“I always like to give back to kids,” Alvarez, a Los Angeles native, said. “I always like to see the kids happy, so it was an easy decision. I made it in a heartbeat.”
Alvarez personally gifted one student a soccer ball, and whenever a student approached, he signed whatever they wanted.
“It means a lot to me,” Alvarez said. “When I was a kid, I always liked things like this. I loved this type of stuff. Seeing the kids happy brings back memories and seeing them happy makes me happy.”