By Roman Flores
EL CENTRO — A struggling family hungry for a sense of fellowship. A volunteer who relishes spreading joy to people in need, especially children.
They were two of the participants in The Embrace on Dec. 14, the largest event organized by the El Centro Catholic Community. In its third edition, the event was a Christmas party and much more for needy families and homeless residents of the Imperial Valley, which endures some of the highest poverty rates in the state.
Around 300 volunteers turned out to St. Mary Parish’s church hall, which had been brightly decorated for the occasion. They provided a touch of home and warmth to the 1,556 people from across the Imperial Valley who packed the place, including at least 52 homeless men and women, according to organizers.
Participants received 915 hot meals and bags of pantry items to take home. For children, there was a Cake Wall, a play zone and, of course, a photo with Santa Claus. Homeless residents received free haircuts and were able to take a shower, along with getting clothes and toiletries. The event was months in the making and virtually everything was donated.
Four members of the Piña family from the city of Imperial attended the event — Mariel and her two young children, Giovanni and Gianni, and her mother, Nydia.
“It really feels welcoming (with the) decorations,” said Mariel Piña. “The Christmas spirit is present.”
A single mother, she said the family had limited income but it was the opportunity to socialize that drew them there.
“My children’s routine is just school to home and home to school. So it’s good to get them around other kids and other people.”
She said the family was thankful to be able to be around people in the community.
“Everybody is super nice. You have a good time eating and (the kids) get their little present.”
Clarissa Estrada volunteered as the captain of “Santa’s Toy Shop,” where the toys were sorted and wrapped. She said the thanks she gets from parents, and the look on their kids’ faces, keep her coming back.
She said many parents told her that they could not afford to give their kids the present they wanted.
At the event, “they were able to give it to their kids from Santa Claus,” said Estrada, a parishioner at El Centro Catholic.
She said that many needy families were at first embarrassed to reach out for help but as the event has grown, they have become more receptive.
“Nobody is judging them here, nobody is looking down on them,” Estrada said. “We want to help and it just feels so good to be able to do that.”
Richard Enriquez founded the Homeless Ministry at St. Mary’s Parish and is the event’s co-coordinator. The event began to reach out to the homeless but has grown to serve needy families, as well. He saw the event as an expression of faith.
“It’s not us, it’s the Holy Spirit,” Enriquez said. “The Holy Spirit just takes off in you and you’re just being loving and enjoying the whole time. It’s beautiful. The Embrace is beautiful”