In the memory of one, it spread to many

SANTA ANA —The convoy made its way across the street and up the stairs with 12-year-old Bella Anderson bringing up the rear with four oversized Nordstrom shopping bags stuffed with presents.

At Apartment 103 — the number scribbled on the door — the party gingerly walked inside, packing the living room of the studio-turned-two-bedroom apartment where four members of the Murillo family waited.

Moms Rebecca Anderson and Christina Murillo broke the ice with a nice-to-meet-you hug that brought tears to their eyes.

"We have so much stuff for you," Anderson said, looking around at the gifts that covered the white carpet.

Andersen Elementary School's second-grade classes collected the gifts, which on Wednesday night were delivered by Anderson and her two children, Bella and Josh, 8; Cami Young and her daughters, Natalie, 10, and Olivia, 8; and friend Ryan McMonigal, 8.

Theirs was one of seven groups of Santa's helpers this holiday season who ventured outside Newport Beach to bring gifts to families like the Murillos. Each grade level at Andersen adopted a family and spent the first part of December collecting items for Irvine's Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot's Jessica Herron Inner-City Partnership.


In memory of Jessica Herron

Andersen first-grade teacher Brenda Colgate was the catalyst.

Former Shir Ha-Ma'alot Rabbi Bernie King created the adopt-a-family program after the Rodney King riots in 1992, and Colgate, a member of the temple, got involved a few years later.

Colgate participated with her family friends, the Herrons, to adopt a family not just during Christmas, but year-round, taking them to places like the beach and Disneyland.

Jessica Herron, 19, a Woodbridge High School graduate and Vanderbilt University student, died in a car accident in 2005.

Having been involved in the program since she was young, it was renamed in her honor.

"Jessica was the one who was so enthusiastic about the program ... her life was dedicated to helping other people," Colgate said. "Her death moved me so much that I wanted to do something more."

Colgate brought the program to her school by asking her students to give to it instead of her during the holidays.

The class was generous, she said, and other teachers soon joined in.

Last year, Colgate handed the reins over to the school's Kids Addressing Needs, or K.A.N., a coalition of the student council, students and the Parent Teacher Assn., to spread the program to the entire school.

Each class adopted a family by collecting basic items like blankets, towels, sleeping bags, toiletries, shoes, clothing and some toys. Each adopted family was also given $300 in gift cards.

"It started just because I was trying to help in the memory of someone special to really make a difference," Colgate said. "And in that way, sometimes in tragedy when things happen, we try to look at the silver lining. I think the silver lining is we are helping so many people."


'I don't want to get adopted'

The Murillo family's Christmas tree stood decorated but without presents Wednesday at the entrance to their apartment.

The living room floor was another matter. The number of gifts barely left any room to walk.

The Murillo daughters — Julieana, 7, Brianna, 10, and Viviana, 12 — made no move to open them. Their 5-year-old brother and father were away, taking care of a sick relative.

Juliana said she wanted to wait until Christmas — a Christmas that would be different than what the Murillo family was originally going to have.

"I didn't think [the children] would be getting anything for Christmas," mother Christina Murillo said. "This means a lot to me. I don't really care about me, just if they get something."

Viviana signed the family up for the program — although she didn't know what it was at first.

During a meeting with her school counselor about her family, she was given an application for the adopt-a-family program, but she thought the counselor was trying to take her away from her family.

"She was like, 'I don't want to get adopted,'" Christina Murillo said, laughing.

Now that Viviana knows what the program is, she said she thinks it's cool, and Murillo said she is grateful they were picked.

"I didn't think that they would pick us," she said, "because that's the kind of luck I have."


Feeling generous

The Andersen families took a second trip Wednesday to their two SUVs for a last round of gift-giving.

The evening wrapped up as the Murillos received items like blankets and toiletries. Then it was time for a group picture to remember the occasion.

As they were getting ready to leave, the children said they felt good. Josh said he felt very generous while dropping off the presents.

"It feels good to be giving back to them," Bella said. "It made you feel good when you give the presents to them because it made them happy."

Ryan said he learned that it is more important to give than receive — the lesson Rebecca Anderson said she wanted the kids to walk away with.

She said she wants them to learn what it feels like to help others, how it can make them happy as well as someone else, and to see how they can make a difference.

The experience was an important part of Christmas, Rebecca Anderson said.

"Our kids are very fortunate, and I think they don't really get to see kids who aren't very often," Cami Young said. "You can tell them, but it does help them to see."

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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