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The Christmas Project: Nonprofits brings holiday cheer to farmworker families for 40th year

Article: Nicholas Ibarra, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Photos: Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County
December 17, 2018

WATSONVILLE — For migrant farmworkers and their families, funds are especially tight during the holiday season when work in the Pajaro Valley’s sprawling fields is on hiatus until the spring.

Now in its 40th year, the nonprofit Christmas Project works to ensure that hundreds of Santa Cruz County farmworker families won’t want for a Christmas dinner or presents beneath the tree.

“It’s just making sure our neighbors have what they need to have a happy holiday season,” said Suzanne Willis, Second Harvest Food Bank’s development and marketing officer. The food bank has been a key partner in the Christmas Project for decades, coordinating distribution of thousands of pounds of holiday food.

Monday, teams of firefighters and volunteers worked their way through six migrant camps and low-income apartments in Aptos and Watsonville to pass out boxes of food with a side of holiday cheer.

More than 20,000 pounds of food — chicken, cereals, tuna, cooking oil, canned goods and fresh produce — were distributed to 170 families this year, according to Willis.

Surrounded on all sides by farmland, Jardines Del Valle is a low-income apartment complex on Murphy Crossing Road, a few miles east of Watsonville.

It was the last stop Monday afternoon for the Christmas Project volunteers, and residents said they were more than grateful.

“It’s a very good program,” said Lidice Ortiz, speaking in Spanish. Ortiz lives at Jardines Del Valle with her husband and two daughters, ages 5 and 8. “They help us put together a Christmas dinner when we don’t have the economic resources,” she said.

Manuel Garcia, a fire apparatus engineer with Cal Fire’s Pajaro Valley unit, said he and his colleagues also appreciate the opportunity to better get to know their community.

The Christmas Project was founded in 1978 by Gladys Anderson. Then a Santa Cruz County social worker, Anderson recalls meeting Maria, a 12-year-old girl from a farmworker family, who asked her for a doll — something her family couldn’t afford, and she’d never had.

“It was just a very small thing we could do to help her,” Anderson said on Monday, reflecting back to that moment 40 years ago out of which the Christmas Project grew.

Now the Christmas Project serves more than 300 families each year, with partners including the Second Harvest Food Bank, Cal Fire, Safeway and Raley’s.

“I just feel really lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of different people, to get to know different people and help fulfill some of their wishes and help them move forward in some ways,” Anderson said. “More than anything else, it’s that the families can know that somebody else cares about them — the love that they get. It’s not just a gift.”

Founded in 1978, the nonprofit Christmas Project provides food and gifts to hundreds of hundreds of Santa Cruz County’s migrant farmworker families each holiday season.