By Sharon Burns
EL CENTRO — The Catholic community launched a holiday celebration six years ago to bring joy and hope to the needy in the Imperial Valley. The 2023 edition of the Embrace may have drawn the most participants ever.
That’s how it looked to Deacon Domingo Enriquez, who initially proposed the event, a collaborative effort of El Centro Catholic and Catholic Charities.
This year, the community hosted the Embrace at two locations on Dec. 9: at the St. Mary Parish Center and, for the first time, at the day center run by Catholic Charities that provides services to the homeless.
For months, community members had donated food for the pantry, and toys and personal items through bins set up at St. Mary and Our Lady of Guadalupe churches, which make up Our Lady of the Valley (OLV) Parish. They also contributed thousands of dollars and served as volunteers on event day.
At St. Mary’s, participants received a barbecue meal, groceries, haircuts and raffle prizes. Children played in a fun zone, participated in a cake walk, received toys and visited with Santa Claus.
Community members donated funds to purchase more than 2,000 pounds in groceries and contributed $25,000, which was used to buy gifts, said Father Mark Edney, who leads OLV Parish.
Deacon Enriquez said that volunteers had served more than 1,000 plates of food by the time the event ended at 2 p.m.
“The parish center was filled, as was the school auditorium,” he said. “I think we served more people than any other Embrace.”
Father Edney thanked many contributors to the event, including the Good Times Valle Imperial Car Club, which also organized a toy drive.
“We feared that we would run out of toys. Just when we needed them most, these beautiful gifts arrived to tide us over until the end,” he wrote in a social media post showing tables filled with toys.
Catholic Charities team members assisted individuals and families at both locations, said Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor, the organization’s chief executive officer.
At the day center, 57 people received help, gift cards and groceries. At the St. Mary’s campus, team members helped 39 families and 86 individuals to sign up for the CalFresh food program, and they all received backpacks, lunch bags, stretching exercise bands, kneeling pads to avoid injury, and hand sanitizer. Lions Club International also provided prescription glasses to those who needed it, Pajanor said.