As Executive Director Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga walked through the Ayudando Latinos a Soñar center on Saturday afternoon, she could hardly get through as piles of gifts were stored on every available surface. Outside, bags full of wrapped toys lined the sidewalk, ready for 200 local families to drive through and pick up.

“It’s just a really important connection of care and of saying, ‘We’re here for you, we believe in you and are gathering together to support you during a really difficult time,’” said Hernandez-Arriaga.

This year ALAS hosted its first toy drive, and on Saturday more than 800 toys and 110 gift cards were distributed to families.

“After these past two years with COVID-19, people need to have a good Christmas,” said Susy Perkins, communications director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, San Mateo Stake. “It’s also very important for our youth to be involved and to give back to their community and to help people who are less fortunate than them … It’s important for youth to volunteer because it creates meaning in our lives.”

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, San Mateo Stake, was one of the churches that hosted toy collections for the drive, and collected more than 220 toys. ALAS also hosted a food pantry on Saturday.

“Food has been a crisis,” said Hernandez-Arriaga. “When you can’t even buy food, you can’t buy gifts. With the financial crisis, getting gifts is never easy. It’s a luxury, so being able to give families these gifts that mean so much to the children.

“We’re so grateful for all of the donations so that we are able to do that,” she said.

The inaugural drive was organized in part by a new support group called Angels of ALAS, which is a group of volunteers formed in September to help organize the collection efforts of ALAS’ various drives.

“It’s so great what they are doing and that ALAS can partner with them and give out the fruits of their labor, and of their love and this community that donates,” said Hernandez-Arriaga.

“When we were thinking of the name, I thought of Angels of ALAS because we really see them as angels coming through,” she said. “Especially during this holiday season, and especially at this time where we are so busy. Having their help really helps leverage so much more for the community. We’re really grateful.”

Since their formation, the Angels, Vanessa Love, Jennifer O’Quigely, Kate Shea and Lizette Diaz, have partnered with local organizations and coordinated collections of toiletries, blankets and coats for beneficiaries of ALAS.

“There’s a phrase, ‘many hands make light work’” said Love. “And I live by that.”

Love and the Angels connected with students at Half Moon Bay High School through its Real Life Learning program, which links students with volunteer opportunities in the community.

“When I spoke to Vanessa she explained that they would be doing a holiday toy drive for some of the farmworkers and that was really interesting to me,” said Alexandria Shick, a student volunteer who was connected through the program. “We collected everything from toddler toys to gift cards for teenagers. We don’t want just toys for younger kids even though that’s what people buy because there are lots of teenagers who still deserve Christmas presents.”

Love remembered seeing a photo of another toy drive where there were 20 tables filled with gifts for children, and then one small table with gifts for older kids.

“The problem is that teenagers are the ones who are aware,” said Love. “They’re the ones who go back to school, and have to hear about everyone else's Christmas gifts.”

ALAS plans to do another drive around Valentine’s Day.

Emma Spaeth is a staff writer for the Half Moon Bay Review covering community, arts and sports. Emma grew up in Half Moon Bay before earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Oregon.

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