Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Special to the Valley News

In collaboration with the Hemet and San Jacinto unified school districts, the Soboba Foundation and Soboba Casino Resort provided toys for local students just in time for Christmas. Diverging from past years of toy drives held in conjunction with the Soboba Casino Resort, this year’s event enlisted the help of the San Jacinto Walmart to fulfill the wish list of 5,000 toys for young children.

The Soboba Foundation reached out to a few department stores to help them with this large endeavor, and special elves from the San Jacinto Walmart stepped in to help out. Walmart’s store manager Sandy Cifuentes, academy lead Lisa Flores and general manager and coach Irma Hernandez worked closely with the Foundation’s coordinator Andrew Vallejos in the true spirit of community and Christmas.

“We appreciate this event and are here to give our support,” Cifuentes said.

And support they did. Before the popular Unstuff the Bus events could take place, Walmart team members shopped, rang up and ensured toy inventory to help accomplish the mission. They also provided manpower to load 1,000 toys onto the Soboba bus for each day of delivery.

“It’s always the season for unity, inclusion and giving,” Vallejos said. “We are grateful to all those who said yes and asked how they could help.”

The first event took place at San Jacinto Unified School District’s main office parking lot Monday, Dec. 5, where hundreds of community members waited for the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians’ bus to arrive. Forming a “toy brigade” from where the bus parked to the entrance of the district office’s warehouse, gifts were passed along one at a time. SJUSD’s School, Family and Community Liaison Sheila Blythe helped members of the San Jacinto High School cheer team and other volunteers sort each gift onto tables labeled for age groups and gender located inside the huge warehouse.

“We love to see everyone out here working together,” Blythe said.

Soboba Tribal Council and Foundation members were on hand, as well as Soboba Fire Department personnel, working alongside other volunteers as toys were passed down the line. Tribal members were there to help, too.

“It filled my heart to see so many wonderful people come out and jump in to help and be a part of such a huge community giving event,” Carla Adame, family and community engagement specialist, for SJUSD’s Student, Community and Personnel Support Department said.

She explained that each year, the school site family liaisons work with their principals and staff to identify worthy students. There were about 350 families who got selected this year. Plus, they always save a small stash for last-minute needs so there will be close to 400 SJUSD families that Soboba will help this Christmas with their generous donation. The toys were distributed during a Christmas-themed event Saturday, Dec. 10, and Adame said she was thankful to all the amazing liaisons, principals and staff who helped make it a great event by decorating beautiful stations.

“Soboba has been one of our biggest and most consistent blessings by far,” Adame said. “It’s never about anything else for them other than to help. They are always asking us how they can help so in turn our district works hard to be the best stewards we can with what they give us for our students and families; we implement equitable systems into each step of our process. We make it fun for our families because at the end of the day we’re all here for them and seeing their grateful, happy faces is what it’s all about.”

Vince Record, SJUSD’s director of CTE and Special Programs, welcomed all the volunteers and guests at the Unstuff the Bus event and thanked the Soboba Foundation for 13 years of giving back to the San Jacinto district’s families and community.

“The Soboba Gives Back toy distribution program started in 2009 with former Soboba Tribal leader and SJUSD Board Member Rose Salgado, who is dearly missed,” he said.

Some of the special guests that were acknowledged with a round of applause included Soboba Tribal Council, Soboba Foundation and Tribal members, Hemet/San Jacinto Valley Chamber of Commerce members and Walmart team members who helped make event possible by providing the toys that were purchased by the Soboba Foundation and Soboba Casino Resort.

San Jacinto Unified Board and Cabinet members, students, staff and families and Riverside County Office of Education’s Superintendent of Schools Edwin Gomez, Ed.D., were also introduced before everyone got ready to unstuff the bus. Hot chocolate and fresh cookies were provided by the district’s Nutritional Services Department and the holiday music was turned up as the crowd cheered the arrival of the bus, led by a Soboba Fire engine.

Cathi Hill and Billie Jo Williams from the American Cancer Society said they were happy to help out at such a great event.

“We are always happy to support Soboba because they do so much for the American Cancer Society and the community,” Hill said.

Soboba Tribal Chair Isaiah Vivanco said, “We are thankful to be in a position to help out others. The Tribe has had its ups and downs this year but we’re still in a position to give back and that’s a good feeling.”

Then the Soboba bus was stuffed with another 1,000 toys at the San Jacinto Walmart store in the morning Thursday, Dec. 8. That evening, at Tahquitz High School, it was unstuffed for distribution to children within the Hemet Unified School District. Christmas lights shined over the heads of a long line of volunteers who made sure all the toys were safely stored at the school while joyful Christmas music played on loudspeakers.

“We are continually overwhelmed by the generosity of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians and their support of our children and families,” Emily Shaw, HUSD’s director of wellness and community outreach, said. “Through their generous toy donation this year, more than 1,000 children will receive a toy who may otherwise not have gifts. We are extremely grateful for their ongoing support and commitment to our community.”

Miriam Ortiz, HUSD’s coordinator of school, family and community partnerships, said Hemet families continue to express gratitude for the toy donations.

“The toys provide our parents relief during the holiday season and allows them to sprinkle joy into the lives of their children!” Ortiz said.

Soboba Tribal Vice Chair Geneva Mojado said she looks forward to connecting with the community at these events.

“To see so many people take time to come out to help us secure Christmas gifts for the neediest children in our valley always makes me smile,” she said.

An additional 3,000 toys purchased at Walmart were made available to local nonprofits that serve the mission statement of the Soboba Foundation and had requested the donations. More than 300 Starbucks cards in the amount of $20 each were given to each district as gifts for students 14 and older in selected families receiving toys for their younger siblings.

Soboba Foundation President Dondi Silvas said, “It’s a blessing to be able to help bring some joy and cheer to kids, especially at this time of year.”