For birthday of Jesus, mission gives away the gifts

Modesto Gospel Mission Happy Birthday Jesus Event

The annual Happy Brithday Jesus event at the Modesto Gospel Mission in Modesto California on December 23, 2015. (John Westberg/
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The annual Happy Brithday Jesus event at the Modesto Gospel Mission in Modesto California on December 23, 2015. (John Westberg/

Leaving the Happy Birthday, Jesus, Party at Modesto Gospel Mission on Wednesday afternoon, Darlena Banuelos said she hadn’t wanted to celebrate Christmas this year. Her fiancé, the father of her two children, died last Dec. 27, she said. “This is our first Christmas without him, and I get sad. I want him here.”

But Banuelos said she knew he’d want her to make Christmas a happy time for their two children, 5-year-old son Angel and 4-year-old daughter Karma. And with the help of mission volunteers and staff, and the many people who donated toys, gifts and food for the party, she did.

Banuelos was among about 2,500 people who attended the mission’s annual party, where they listened to live music, were served a hot lunch and given tickets to redeem for gifts in an adjacent room. Tables labeled for men and women, and for boys and girls of different age ranges, held unwrapped gifts so recipients could choose what they liked. More than 2,600 gifts and 2,200 meals were given away.

Outside, she showed what her children selected. “She’s in love with the ‘Frozen’ dolls,” Banuelos said, holding up a box with dolls of the Disney princess sisters Elsa and Anna. “He’s getting into action figures, like Batman,” she added, showing an armored Dark Knight action figure and a small Batmobile that Angel picked out.

Banuelos is glad she got in the Christmas spirit. “It touches my heart when they do this for us,” she said of the mission’s party. “For the kids, it’s been like Christmas every day this week” between relatives giving them gifts and mission staff helping celebrate the season.

The gift tables were a wonderland for children entering the room. They held all sorts of things kids love: basketballs, footballs and soccer balls; skateboards and scooters; puzzles and games; and more. Volunteers were given the sometimes challenging task of giving children a present or presents that totaled about $20. “I have no idea what some of these things cost,” one volunteer was overheard saying to another.

It’s a loosey-goosey guideline, said Katie Smith, development coordinator for the mission, explaining that a basketball might be paired with a related item, like wristbands, to total about $20. “We just want to make sure it’s fair among the children,” she said, “so each kid has a feeling that they got the best of the best.”

Eleven-year-old Xander Donahue certainly felt that way. “I’m really lucky today,” he said as he and his dad, Louis, were leaving the party. “First I got to hear music, I got to play video games (in his room at the mission) and got to come to this. It’s really fun being here – I love this mission.”

Xander was carrying a soccer ball and a couple of other small gifts, plus a plush reindeer (each child also got a stuffed animal) and knit gloves. For the moment, his dad was wheeling what really had Xander excited – a new bike.

When they walked into the gift room, father and son immediately saw a few bicycles of different sizes, but were told they were for a raffle. They’d taken only a few steps when a mission staffer who overheard the exchange said to Xander, “You want a bike? Come here.” He walked the boy back to the bikes, grabbed a boys bike of the right size and wished the boy a merry Christmas.

Turned out the bikes weren’t for a raffle but a selective giveaway. The mission had about 20 to offer over the course of the five-hour event, so staff could occasionally pick a child of the right age and gender for the available selection.

Louis Donahue, who’s staying with Xander in the mission’s housing for single dads and their children, said, “I’ve got no money. I didn’t think I’d be able to give him a good Christmas. But we’re having a great Christmas.”

“More presents than I usually get ever,” Xander added.

That was possible because the mission had a good supply to distribute, Smith said. “Just a week ago, we were feeling like we were going to be low, but then we got an influx. I’ve been here about a year and a half and heard that this is one of the biggest years we’ve had for gifts.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327