They arrived on four-wheel sleighs and were not exactly coming from the North Pole. But a group of car club members turned into Santa’s little helpers on Saturday, Dec. 12, when they delivered dozens of toys to the Valley Family Center in San Fernando that will go to needy children this Christmas.
It was the First Annual Christmas Toy Drive organized by the San Fernando Social Club, a group made up of representatives from Latin Dukes, New Movement San Fernando, Solitarios and Midnight Breed car clubs.
The toy drive was in honor of Gabriel Fernandez, Anthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro — all victims of extreme child abuse that cost them their lives.
Fernandez, 8, died in May 2013 after suffering beatings, burns and even being shot with BB pellets at the hands of his mother Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre in the home they shared in Palmdale. His mother eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, admitting the child’s death was intentional and committed by torture. Aguirre was convicted of first-degree murder and torture.
Anthony Avalos, 10, also lived in Palmdale and died in June 2018 after being allegedly starved, beaten and burned. His mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend Kareem Leiva, face charges of first-degree murder and torture. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Noah Cuatro’s parents, Jose Maria Cuatro and Ursula Elaine Juarez, face similar charges in the death of the 4-year-old. In July 2019, the parents told authorities Noah drowned in a pool, but grand jury documents indicate he was allegedly beaten and was sexually abused.
A banner bearing the photos and names of Gabriel Fernandez, Anthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro was placed behind the toys on Saturday.
Hoping to “Make Some People Happy”
Adam Robles, president of Latin Dukes, said the group was formed initially to help raise funds for the renovations going on at the American Legion building. Given the holidays, they decided to come together again to “make some people happy,” and raised more funds to buy the toys.
They tried giving the toys to the Los Angeles Fire Department and the San Fernando Police Department. But due to the COVID-19 outbreak, both agencies said they were not collecting toys this year.
Mary Sandoval, another Social Club member, called the Valley Family Center (VFC), which provides services to women victims of abuse and their children, and they did accept them.
“It’s sad to see a kid not get a toy on Christmas,” said Sandoval, who added the group decided to name the effort in honor of the three abused children who died because “we feel very strongly about what happened.”
The Center, Sandoval added, turned out to be the perfect recipient for the toys, given that they work with abused women and provide mental health services to the community.
“What better than to give these toys to these families,” Sandoval said. “We’re just trying to put some kind of joy into children’s faces.”
A Positive Light
Emily Carranza, cousin of Gabriel Fernandez who was present at the toy delivery, said she saw the effort as a “positive light.”
“Out of a tragedy something good is coming for other kids in the community,” said Carranza, who runs the Facebook page “Gabriel’s Justice” that was created to call for changes to the social work and child welfare system after the boy’s death.
She thanked the Social Club for its effort in honor of the children, helping to keep their memories alive.
“They just wanted not to forget them, not to forget their suffering and give back to the community,” Carranza noted.
Gary Bessler, VFC executive director, also thanked the Social Club for its donation and said the toys for children through age 12 would be distributed just before Christmas.
“We’re planning a drive-thru distribution on Dec. 22 to distribute toys to the families,” Bessler said.
They are currently working to identify the 60 most needy families in their programs to invite them to the drive-thru distribution. They’ve also received a $3,000 grant from Valley Presbyterian Hospital that they’ll use to put together food baskets for these families.
“We’ll put everything in the trunks for them,” Bessler said.
Every year, the VFC organizes a large Christmas gathering for families they serve, where they serve dinner to the mothers and hold a party for the kids.
“We usually have about 60 ladies victims of domestic violence and about 100 children,” he said.
But that’s not possible this year because of the pandemic, Bessler said. The center still had some toys left over from last year, and with the recent donation, there will be enough toys to bring some joy this year.
“Anything (donated) is going to be helpful and it will help us give our families something for the holidays,” Bessler said.
Since March, the VFC — which offers its services on a sliding pay scale — has provided its counseling and other programs through Zoom or telephone.
But the counselors are as busy as they’ve ever been.
“People are suffering from depression, anxiety, stress, in part because of not being able to socialize due to the pandemic,” Bessler said. “We have as many clients now as before COVID-19.”
These feelings, he said, can exacerbate during the holidays “when people that are alone experience more depression during this time.”
The circumstances are so different this year, because of COVID-19, that a ray of sunshine for these families and their children — provided by the toys and a food basket — will go a long way in brightening their days.
“(The San Fernando Social Club) really needs to be recognized for going out of their way to do this,” Bessler said.
Those interested in donating toys to the Valley Family Center can still do so until Dec 21.