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Christmas comes early in giveaways around Los Angeles

December 19, 2009 |  7:57 pm

In East Los Angeles, children strained today to hear the sound of sirens. At any moment, a big, red firetruck would arrive with Santa Claus and toys.

“Here he comes!” one mother yelled, as she heard the cry in the distance.

Denise Barnes watched her 9-year-old daughter, Caroline Guillen, jump with joy. They were among about 30 families gathered from AbilityFirst, an after-school program that helps children with disabilities. Caroline has Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, which causes seizures.

“She’s used to seeing the firetrucks when she has to go to the hospital,” said Barnes, who lives in Silver Lake. “But this time, it’s good. This time they brought gifts.”

Across Los Angeles, a bit of joy awaited at the end of long lines for toys and necessities given to families struggling to find work in a troubled economy.

At animal shelters, churches and juvenile detention centers, Angelenos spread holiday cheer to thousands, giving away meals, care packages and, in some cases, haircuts and deep-tissue massages.

“Oh my!” shrieked Rosa Miller during a much-needed back rub offered by a volunteer at one community event. “This is too good to be true.”

The 47-year-old awoke in her temporary home at a skid row shelter to find a nearby parking lot transformed into a banquet of services.

The event, organized by Culver City-based Agape International Spiritual Center and the Weingart Center Assn. in L.A., served more than 3,000 people throughout the day, offering hygiene goody bags, new clothes and arts and crafts lessons.

For some, there was no need for a queue.

In the downtown area, Christmas arrived on the doorsteps of 350 low-income families. Cardinal Roger Mahony dispatched hundreds of volunteers from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to deliver toys, blankets and food.

In Sylmar, a Winter Wonderland, featuring food and games, was created for youths at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. And at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, about 200 people had already begun to line up Saturday afternoon in anticipation of Sunday’s Christmas bike giveaway.

Even animals had their day

Dogs, cats and bunnies were primped and groomed at more than a dozen animal shelters across Los Angeles County, in the hope that families would show up and adopt them. By noon, nearly 70 animals had found homes.

“We have hundreds of pets,” said Evelina Villa, outreach assistant for the county Department of Animal Care and Control. “We encourage families wanting to get one for the holidays to adopt instead of buy.”

At the Hollenbeck Youth Center, home to one of Los Angeles’ biggest toy drives, children carted home volleyball nets and basketballs. Thousands stood in line, some having spent the night in the chilly air, for a chance to score a Christmas gift for their children.

Reyna Campos, 20, was among those. She collected five presents for her son and siblings.

“We were afraid we were going to miss out, so we went for it,” Campos said.

As the family walked away, Campos’ 9-year-old sister, Jessica, was more fascinated with a pile of snow dropped on 1st Street for the children to play with. She put away her new board game and picked up a mound of powder to lug home.

“This will be good,” she said, laughing, “for snow cones.”

-- Esmeralda Bermudez in East Los Angeles

Photo: Francisco Pasqual and his wife Magdalena, center, thank Adopt-A-Family volunteers Mercedes Zubiate, left, and Margo Mavridis, both from Sacred Heart Parish in Covina, for delivering goods to their Los Angeles apartment for Christmas. Credit: Christina House/For The Times