Poverty rates for school-age children across the United States have increased significantly in about 20 percent of counties over the past three years, according to the US Census Bureau. In San Bernardino County, about 17 percent of people live below the poverty level. The estimated percent of people in California living in the same conditions is only 14.2 percent. San Bernardino is home to more poor than the average for the state.
In communities like this, Christmas can be an especially stressful time for parents who don’t have the means to buy a lot of presents for their children. But there are people who make a difference for families in San Bernardino.
Healthy Neighborhoods Project is a Loma Linda University student-led organization. Earlier this month, the Project hosted its fifth annual Christmas Fiesta, a combination health fair and Christmas party for needy children and their families. There was space for 300 children, and the event was full. A mariachi band played festive music while children visited various booths and ate healthy snacks.
Each child was paired with a volunteer to be with them throughout the party. The children could visit health booths, including one about bicycle safety where they could get a free helmet. Kids could also work on crafts. Cookie decorating and ornament making were popular.
Lourdes Baez attended with her five children, ranging in age from one to eight years old. Baez’s children are all foster kids with the exception of her three-year-old whom she has adopted. She was grateful to have a place to bring her kids. Baez proudly showed off the ornament her daughter made.
Gennaya Mattison-Curtis, 24, a third-year medical student at Loma Linda University and a volunteer for Healthly Neighborhoods Project, co-coordinated the event, which included recruiting volunteers to bring and wrap gifts for the children. At the end of the Fiesta, Santa Claus gave each child one of these gifts to take home and put beneath their Christmas tree. “We used to give the gift at the beginning of the program," says Curtis, "but found that the kids were more focused on getting a gift than anything else. We want the focus to be on spending time with friends and family."
Curtis remarks about the gift the children receive, "For some kids, this will be the only Christmas present they get."