The cars started lining up at dusk, snaking through the parking lot at Del Valle High School and onto Ross Road. The North Pole had come to southeastern Travis County, to a spot outside the football stadium marked with balloons, to a large folding table piled with neatly wrapped boxes.
For about 300 kids whose families couldn’t afford presents this year, Santa was here.
Not the bearded guy in the red suit. Volunteers in flannel and jeans, thick jackets and knit caps. Members of New Covenant Church, who work throughout the fall to make Operation Christmas Gift a thing. And Martha Lujan, the community health worker who hustled to bring them here.
“Merry Christmas!” 4-year-old Matthew Aguirre shouted from the backseat of his parents’ car, his face beaming after a volunteer handed gifts through the passenger window.
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The drive-thru gift distribution Wednesday evening came together in a matter of days: Lujan learned the church group from Cedar Creek had extra gifts after holding its two planned events. She collected additional donations, nailed down a location and circulated an online signup form for families seeking presents.
“It went quick,” she told me. “There’s a lot of need.”
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Lujan sees it every day in her job at the Children’s Wellness Center, a clinic operated by the University of Texas School of Nursing just around the corner from the high school. She hands out donated clothing and canned goods, especially at the end of the month, when families have depleted their food stamps. She just landed a partnership with Austin Diaper Bank. And she recently pointed Crystal Simpson to a place where her daughter could get a free haircut.
“Martha is a blessing,” Simpson told me Wednesday evening as she picked up three gift boxes for her kids, ages 10, 12 and 13. “We need more people like her.”
Lujan started at the health center in June, and people speak of her in that indispensable tone. Families come to the clinic for various ailments, and Lujan is there to bridge other gaps, whether it’s helping people get cellphone service or apply for housing assistance. Neighbors keep the clothing racks and food pantry stocked.
“It’s a lot of work, and I’m so thankful to have volunteers come and help me,” Lujan said. “This community won me over because they donate. Everything has been donated.”
Including, of course, the truckload of presents that Operation Christmas Gift project coordinators Mauro and Teresa Rodriguez brought over Wednesday evening. They had already handed out roughly 600 gifts between distribution events at Dobie Middle School and in the town of Uvalde, but they promised Lujan they would help if they had anything left, and “the Lord blessed,” Teresa Rodriguez said.
The couple has been running Operation Christmas Gift for 19 years with loving efficiency and two dozen helpers. Volunteers start wrapping empty boxes in August, careful to leave the top flaps open so toys can be added later. The church hosts a toy drive in October or November. Christian schools and National Honor Society clubs pitch in.
A silent auction at New Covenant Church this year raised $2,000, which the Rodriguezes used to buy stacks of die-cast cars, wooden puzzles, Barbies, makeup organizers, headphones and remote-controlled toy helicopters, among other things.
Volunteers assemble boxes for girls or boys in three age groups: 3-5, 6-9 and 10-14. You’d be amazed how much fits into each gift box: several toys, some school supplies and daily essentials such as toothbrushes.
Every box includes some kind of stuffed animal, too. “I don’t care how old you are, everyone needs something soft to hug,” Teresa Rodriguez said.
That tenderness comes from lean years and lived experience. Rodriguez said she was raised by a single mom after her parents divorced when she was in kindergarten. Her mom did her best, she said, but “I know what it’s like not to have the best Christmases you can have.”
If you’re a parent with nothing left after paying the rent and putting food on the table, you’re reminded at every turn of the Christmas other families are having.
Holiday music in the stores.
TV commercials for gifts.
Retail displays of trees and stockings and rolls of wrapping paper.
But this week, a couple of hundred families got a taste of that Christmas, too.
Rufina Hernandez wasn’t just smiling, she was glowing as she picked up gift boxes for her five boys, ages 2 to 14.
“She’s happy because it’s been three years and she hasn’t been able to get anything,” Hernandez’s eldest son, Diego, told me, translating his mother’s Spanish.
And that was the most important present tucked in those brightly wrapped boxes: That whatever your family is going through, whatever struggles you’re facing, the joy of the season belongs to you, too.
Grumet is the Statesman’s Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at email@example.com or via Twitter at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/news/columns.
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