Salvation Army shares donors' bounty at Cal Expo

12/22/2012 12:00 AM

12/21/2012 11:15 PM

For more than 100 years, harried shoppers have plinked quarters and stuffed dollar bills into red holiday kettles watched over by the Salvation Army's stalwart bell ringers.

Last year, it all added up to about $180,000 in Sacramento County, and a whopping $147 million nationwide.

Ever wonder where those loose coins go?

On Friday at Cal Expo, thousands of parents too poor to buy Christmas turkeys and toys for their families lined up to gather the fruits of those donations.

Inside a cavernous building, bicycles of all sizes and colors awaited lucky children who had requested them from their moms and dads. Bags filled with Barbie dolls and teddy bears and electronic devices and much more covered the floor, each carrying a number corresponding to a family.

Tags showed that an elaborate Hot Wheels set would go to a boy named Kevin. A bike with pink handlebars was waiting for a first-grader named Erica. A grinning stuffed monkey seated in a handmade wooden high chair was set aside for Margarita.

By the end of the day, volunteers working in the cold and rain handed out 2,500 gift bags and food boxes, benefiting an estimated 7,000 youngsters and their parents. Matching tickets to bags and boxes, many of the workers got soaked to the skin as they loaded goods into the back seats and trunks of a steady stream of vehicles, from rickety Dodge vans to shiny SUVs and much in between.

"I'm really glad to be part of an organization that is giving something back to the community," said Marietta Rubian, a family therapist and member of Sacramento Area Woodworkers, which donated hundreds of handmade wooden toys to the effort. "It feels good."

The annual giveaway is the culmination of the familiar red kettle campaign, launched in 1891 in the San Francisco Bay Area by a worker with the Salvation Army, an organization grounded in Christianity and committed to serving the poor.

Joseph McFee is said to have placed an iron pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing one day and urged people to donate money to feed needy people for Christmas. The tradition has since spread across the United States and beyond, with the kettles used to collect donations in Korea, Japan, Chile and many European countries.

"That money goes a long, long way," said Maj. Ray Yant, Sacramento County coordinator for the Salvation Army.

In addition to the holiday campaign, the red kettle donations also help pay for programs including a homeless shelter, a day care program for kids and a transitional living center for people fighting substance abuse, Yant said.

Only families who meet the federal government's definition of impoverished are eligible for the holiday gifts, he said, and they apply in advance for the program.

The campaign helps put gifts under the Christmas tree and fresh food on the holiday table for people like Bathsheba Thomas, 32, a single mother of four and part-time Wal-Mart worker who has trouble paying her everyday bills.

"It's so hard to save anything," Thomas said. "I put a few little things on layaway," she said, but cannot afford presents for all of her children.

"This helps so much," she said. "The kids just want to see something under the tree. And coming out here and seeing everyone in the holiday spirit is great."

More than 200 volunteers representing businesses including Intel, SMUD, Americorps and LexisNexis kept the goods flowing in orderly fashion. Many said they had personal reasons for helping out.

"At one point in my life there were wonderful people who helped me and my kids," said Rubian, who at the time was a single mother of eight children, six of whom she had adopted.

"I was struggling. One day, I opened the front door and saw food and toys for my family. I'm not sure who did it, but I cried. I absolutely sobbed. This is my way of giving back."

Rubian, decked out in a colorful scarf and "Merry Christmas" crown, kept mostly dry inside the warehouse, handling toys. The same could not be said for Reid Riddle, 50, who spent the day outside in a drenched yellow slicker, directing motorists to the proper location to pick up their gifts.

Riddle was down and out, addicted to drugs and alcohol, when the Salvation Army took him in about a year ago, he said. "I prayed to God real hard, and that's where he led me," he said.

Now sober, Riddle jumped at the chance to volunteer and "help put a smile on people's faces," he said.

"There were times in my life when I wasn't very compassionate," said Riddle, crouching under a flimsy umbrella and dodging puddles.

"I feel different now. Any time I can be a servant I'm going to do it. I'm blessed to be out here in the rain today."

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