It’s been difficult lately for Ingrid Carrillo to pay for life’s most basic necessities, like groceries and rent.
The mother of two had no clue what she was going to do this year come Christmas morning — that moment when her girls roll out of bed and race to the tree to search for their presents.
“That day has always been the biggest blessing,” Carrillo, 29, said.
This past weekend, she found relief at a day-long toy drive in Lennox organized to help struggling families provide gifts for their children.
Hundreds of volunteers transformed Lennox Middle School into a Christmas wonderland. They turned a classroom into Santa’s North Pole, the auditorium into a kid’s playground, the gym into a toy give-away factory.
It was all part of St. Margaret’s Center’s 31st Annual Christmas Program, an event that this year helped 500 families living at or below the poverty level in the neighborhoods south of LAX.
While there are dozens of toy drives across the county this time of year, this one is special in the way the donated toys are passed along to families.
It’s a top secret operation: While children are whisked away to play and do arts and crafts, parents are quietly escorted to pick three to four gifts for each child. The toys are then gift wrapped by volunteers and stashed away in giant plastic bags inside the parents’ cars.
“One of the main principles for us is the dignity of the family,” said Mary Agnes Erlandson, St. Margaret’s Center director. “We want to be sure that the parents select the gifts — that they’re the givers.”
As Carrillo waited in a long line with other families, she was grateful that her sister had invited her along.
The waitress and her husband, a painter, had been doing well until September. Then she developed a cold. The cold worsened due to her diabetes and she had to be hospitalized. She’s been out of work for months and though her husband works six to seven days a week, they struggle to cover all their expenses, including the $1,150 rent for their 1-bedroom apartment in Inglewood.
“It’s been really stressful,” she said. “We’ve had to borrow money, my sister has helped us with food.”
Last Saturday morning, those worries vanished as Carrillo stepped into the gym to pick her daughters’ toys. Like most parents, she came with a checklist. Her youngest, Giselle, 5, was easy. She wanted anything involving her favorite cartoon, Paw Patrol. Kaylynn, 7, had asked for a scooter. An L.O.L. Surprise! folding kick scooter to be exact.
Moments after a volunteer guided Carrillo to the gift stalls, all decked with garland and stockings, she let out a shriek: “Oh my God!”
There it was, right in front of her: Kaylynn’s brand new scooter.
“She’s going to be so happy,” Carrillo said, taking it into her arms.
Throughout the day, similar scenes unfolded as moms and dads made their selections. This year, local businesses, churches and schools donated about 4,000 toys.
Often, parents didn’t pick the biggest gift or the most expensive. They chose whatever they thought would bring the most joy to their child.
Kenyada Ellison from Gardena grabbed a basketball and a few board games for her 9-year-old daughter, Daijah. She has three more children — ages 13, 14 and 15 — but they were too old to benefit from the program.
The 34-year-old single mother moved to Los Angeles from Georgia a couple of years ago. She lost her job at a senior center in the fall. She’s applied to at least 60 jobs in the past few weeks — at restaurants, shoe stores, clothing stores and the post office.
“I’ve been knocking on every possible door,” Ellison said. " I’m on my own out here so I have to keep pushing.”
Over the years, the program has helped all sorts of families. Some have struggled with homelessness, addiction and physical and emotional abuse. Most live paycheck to paycheck — always at risk of losing their footing.
Claudia Molina’s eyes welled with tears as she held on to her bag loaded with gifts. She got her 6-year-old, Michael, an art set, her 8-year-old, Kevin, some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and her 10-year-old, Kayla, a skateboard. She planned to go home and hide the presents in the garage, then tell her husband all about it.
For years, the two have been trying to figure life out in Los Angeles — to find some financial peace of mind.
He works the graveyard shift at the airport, sleeps a few hours, then drives for Uber during the day. She looks after the children and manages the house.
“Nowadays, no one stops to give you a dollar,” she said. “These kinds of programs are a true gift. They mean so much.”