By Antoine Abou-Diwan
Santa Claus dropped in at a party in Niland, Saturday, but instead of flying in by sleigh, he arrived in a helicopter.
His amusing entrance was just one part of a Christmas party that Nena Lopez Mendoza hosts at her house every year, a party where the guests of honor are children from the surrounding area. There was food, candy, games, arts and crafts. Nobody went home without at least one present.
Her reasons for throwing the party are simple.
“Why not invite the kids no one ever thinks about?” she said.
Niland is situated on the north end of Imperial County. Its statistics are grim.
More than 20 percent of its children live below the poverty level. Fourteen percent of its residents have an income of less than 50 percent of the poverty level, according to city-data.com.
This is the sixth year that Mendoza has hosted the Forgotten Angels Christmas party.
“We started the first year with 20 kids,” she said. “It’s open to infants to 18-year-olds. We don’t turn anybody away.”
There were about 200 children this year.
Mendoza said she knows all of the children there. She is a school bus driver for the Calipatria School District.
Heidi Rellah brought her 3-year-old daughter, Mary Jane, to the party.
“This is what she talked about all year,” Rellah said.
“For some of these kids, it’s their one and only Christmas party,” said Sandy Salgado, a neighbor of Mendoza’s and fellow organizer.
“We try to accommodate the kids’ wish list for Christmas,” she said.
Boys typically ask for radio-controlled cars and science games. Girls typically ask for dolls and clothes.
All children who live in Slab City were given bicycles last year, she said.
“Three years ago we had a second-grader ask for socks,” Salgado said. “It touches your heart. You put on socks every day. We take it for granted.”
Organizing a party for 200 kids is no easy task. Mendoza, Salgado and Rosa Romero, a registered nurse, hold fundraisers to raise much-needed cash for presents.
They budget $15 to $20 per kid.
They go Christmas shopping on Black Friday.
And, they get help from the community.
Las Chabelas restaurant and a local Elks club donated the bikes that were given last year to children living at the Slabs. REACH Air Ambulance flew Santa Claus in.
If parties are measured by the number of children laughing, the Forgotten Angels party was successful. Children ran around, played games, got their faces painted and ate sweets.
Alize Hernandez was beaming.
The 7-year-old sat with Santa Claus for a minute or two. Then she got a present.
She wasn’t sure what was in the box. It was wrapped in bright wrapping paper.
“I can hear it barking. I think it’s a dog,” she said, laughing, when asked what she thought was in the box.
Mariana Castillo, also 7 years old, talked to Santa Claus about the weather. But, she forgot to tell him something crucial, that she made a list of things she wants for Christmas.
But, in case he is reading this newspaper, she said she wants another Clawdeen Wolf doll from Monster High.
Castillo was excited about the present she got at the party.
“I think I’ll open it now,” she said, before walking off.
Hope Verdugo, Nena Lopez Mendoza’s sister-in-law, operated Grandma’s Gooey Sweet Shop, a corner of the yard that was turned into a pastry shop. There were cookies and soft drinks for all.
And, D.J. Anchetta gave free haircuts.
Anchetta, a barber, was about to go to work when he was asked to help. So, he picked up his equipment from Big Fellaz Barber Shop in Brawley and set up a makeshift barber station with Everado Manriquez, a fellow barber.
A lot of work went into making sure the children had a good time. But, there was more to be done.
“We need to start driving kids home,” said Sandy Salgado. “The ones from Bombay Beach, Calipat and the Slabs wouldn’t have a way home, she said.
This story first appeared in the Imperial Valley Press, Dec. 15, 2013.