Kriss Kringle made an early appearance Friday at Camarillo State Hospital, bringing Christmas cheer and toys to needy and abused children who might otherwise have neither.
Although the traditional landing via a Sheriff's Department helicopter was canceled because of a scheduling glitch, Santa arrived in a huge bus loaded with dozens of bags of presents.
By 9:30 a.m., volunteers had laid out hundreds of gifts on the gymnasium floor, while scores of children sat eagerly on nearby bleachers, waiting for their turn to choose a present.
"This is just what I wanted," a 12-year-old girl said, after selecting a radio headset from the toys spread before her. "I can't thank them enough."
Others were not certain what they would pick when given their chance. One 13-year-old boy had his eye on a Ken Griffey Jr. baseball cap tucked neatly between a Frisbee and an 18-inch Super Hauler truck. But he thought a radio would do just as well.
"They're very kind," he said of sheriff's deputies. "If they weren't here, it would definitely be boring."
For volunteers like Igor Gromov, a retired bailiff who traveled from Arizona to give away toys for the 10th year in a row, Friday was anything but boring.
"It's not Christmas without this," he said. "The way their faces light up when they get the toys, that's Christmas."
The Ventura County Sheriff's Assn. has been donating toys to children at Camarillo State Hospital since 1972, when Deputy Gary McCollum first organized the toy drive.
"Back in those days they had real bad cutbacks," said McCollum, who spent three weekends buying all the toys after union members donated thousands of dollars for the drive. "These kids got nothing."
Camarillo State Hospital is home to more than 100 abused and neglected children, including many young delinquents sent there by juvenile courts. Others need shelter from domestic violence or have learning disabilities.
At the hospital, the children are enrolled in traditional school programs as well as individual and group therapy.
Jerry Scheurn, coordinator of the hospital's volunteer programs, said that efforts like the deputies' make all the difference to the children.
"A lot of the kids here come to us through the court system, and they have a negative perspective on law enforcement," Scheurn said. "This gives them a good impression. They throw the ball around with the deputies and talk."
Many of the assorted roller blades, footballs, miniature pool tables and electric car racing sets were put to use as soon as they were chosen. Deputies and children stood on opposite ends of the gymnasium, heaving footballs and basketballs from end to end.
"It's nice of them to donate all this stuff," said one 17-year-old boy, who wanted an X-Men race car set to give to his little brother. "It wouldn't be a good Christmas without it."