WATSONVILLE — In the week before Thanksgiving, dozens of volunteers gathered in Watsonville to prepare for the holiday that follows.
After prepping a warehouse with brooms, shovels, saws and other tools on Saturday, the volunteers, after lunch, unloaded a U-Haul truck filled to the brim with toys, which will be delivered to children in need across Santa Cruz County in time for Christmas.
Amid the bustling elves was the constant presence of Toys for Tots program coordinator Delilah Valadez, directing the volunteers to where they needed to be and making sure the operation ran as efficient as can be.
"There's no slowing down for Christmas!" she hollered over the numerous sounds emitting from volunteers pushing boxes and stacking pallets, amplified by the cavernous interior of the warehouse.
Taking a short break, Valadez, who has coordinated the program for the past 30 years, took the time to praise the workers.
"We live in a community that is so kind and so generous," she said.
The volunteers were mobilized thanks to the help of the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County, which took part in the nationwide Family Volunteer Day. A number of projects were hosted across the county with the goal of bringing families together, such as beach cleanups, garden restorations, event preparation and more.
Valadez said Toys for Tots received so many RSVPs that it had to cut off the sign-up period early.
"They showed up ready," she said of the volunteers. "These are prepared elves. They came ready to work."
Andrew and Nathan Salazar were among the busy volunteers Saturday. Helping Toys for Tots has turned into an annual tradition for the brothers, who first started volunteering with the organization when they were freshmen at Aptos High School as a way to satisfy their community service requirements, they said.
And the generous people and fun environment has kept them coming back, Andrew Salazar said.
"It's a good community — it feels like a family," he said. "It's a really good group of people working together. It's an all-hands-on-deck effort."
Watsonville Fire Capt. Rick Pettigrew said he has volunteered with Toys for Tots for 30 years.
In earlier years, the organization would deliver the toys, and Pettigrew recalled seeing the children's "eyes light up," calling it a "rewarding" experience. While Toys for Tots now delivers the toys to various nonprofit organizations, who in turn distribute them to their clients, Pettigrew said the impact is just as gratifying.
"It's done for all the right reasons," he said. "I think it does more for me than it does for them, just knowing that I was able to help out."
Pettigrew praised the volunteers, as well as Togo's and Freedom Meat Lockers, who provided sandwiches for the workers.
"It couldn't be done without the community we have here," he said.
This year, however, could prove to be one of the organization's most difficult in its three-decade history. The loss of Toys R Us, which shut down all of its stores in the nation in June, could result in 1,500 fewer toys this year, according to Valadez.
Over the years, Toys R Us encouraged its customers to make a cash donation to Toys for Tots, which typically netted about $10,000 annually. It also hosted a collection bin, as well as numerous "shopping spree" events by outside groups.
"That is an enormous kick in the knees," she said. "I don't think we've ever had to wrestle with something like that."
To make up for the shortfall, Toys for Tots is hoping to get more community members involved. As Thanksgiving falls earlier this year, it has resulted in an extra weekend of shopping, Valadez said, and toys will be collected through Dec. 17.
While donations of toys for all ages are encouraged, Toys for Tots is especially in need of gender-neutral toys such as board games and art supplies.
For information and to donate, visit santacruzcounty.toysfortots.org.
Families who are looking to continue volunteering for the holiday season are encouraged to view the Volunteer Center's Holiday Guide on its website at www.scvolunteercenter.org.