Southland Marks Christmas Countdown : Good Will Rules as Gifts and Free Food Brighten Holidays for Thousands in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Surrounded by five of her six children, Fay Thomas waited as the line of families--most, like her own, led by harried young mothers carrying babies--filed through the recreation center at Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts.

She paused first at a table laden with plates of food and helped her children carry away free lunches of turkey, dressing and pie being given out by volunteers. Then on to another table, where gift-wrapped presents were handed to the excited youngsters, and a bag of groceries to their grateful mother.

"It's a help," said Thomas, 29, as she led the children to a grassy spot on the project's playground, where they bolted down their lunches and eagerly tore open the Christmas presents.

"Some of these kids, that's the only present they're going to get," she said, looking around her at a playground filled with happy, boisterous children. "It's a nice thing to do. It makes you feel good about Christmas."

Thomas was one of several thousand Watts-area residents who received free food, clothing and Christmas toys from the Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church's third annual "Love Caravan" as it made its rounds to seven churches and public housing projects Saturday.

The giveaway was one of the biggest on a weekend that saw the Los Angeles area awash in a spirit of good will and charity. All over the Southland, food, toys and Christmas trees were given away at holiday parties for needy families.

Families in the Skid Row area received grocery packages, gifts and toys from the Fred Jordan Mission at the group's annual Christmas party; disabled children in the South-Central area were feted at the Manchester Recreation Center; and several thousand toys were given away at the Compton Civic Center.

The festivities at Nickerson Gardens and the other housing projects were sponsored by more than 100 churches--from Watts to Santa Monica to Orange County--said the Rev. Charles Mims, pastor of the Tabernacle of Faith.

"My church sits right in the mouth of Nickerson Gardens, in the heart of Watts, so I see the people's need," Mims said. "The pastors in our group are . . . coming out from behind their stained glass walls, to speak to those needs."

Christmas grocery packages of milk, eggs, chicken, produce and canned goods were purchased for more than 5,000 families, Mims said, with $5,000 donations from his church, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Working Together, a Santa Monica-based Christian volunteer group.

In addition, merchants in the city's garment district donated toys, shoes and clothing to be given away. Volunteers from the churches and Working Together cooked and served the hot lunches.

At Nickerson Gardens, the caravan's first stop, more than 1,500 people crowded into the recreation center's gymnasium to launch the giveaway with a pep rally, featuring church drill teams, who performed to rousing cheers from the audience. Outside, more than 1,000 others waited patiently to pass through the food and gift lines.

Children of Refugees

The crowd was smaller but no less appreciative at a Christmas party given by El Rescate, a project of the Southern California Ecumenical Council. About 500 children of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees celebrated with mimes, music, magic and pinatas, and received new toys donated by local churches and individuals.

In the San Fernando Valley, law enforcement Explorer Scouts from the Foothill area hosted a lunch for more than 200 handicapped children that included a parachute visit from a gift-laden Santa Claus.

At the 28th Street YMCA, more than 500 children from low-income families received free shoes from the Aunts and Uncles Inc., a St. Louis-based group that sponsors annual shoe giveaways.

And as part of a 17-year-old tradition, Christmas trees were given away to needy families at the USC parking lot at Jefferson Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. The giveaway, begun by the late Bob Porter and continued by the foundation started in his memory, will continue today and Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

More charitable events are scheduled for today, including a food giveaway sponsored by One Voice hunger relief organization at the Silva Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The group expects to feed more than 12,000 people this Christmas.

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