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Volunteers help out during the annual distribution of food and toys event at the Davis Street Family Resource Center in San Leandro, Calif. on Wednesday, December 19, 2007. (Tue Nam Ton/BANG East Bay)
SAN LEANDRO — Starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday, cars lined up in the back of the warehouse and were showered with some of the generosity that has become the staple of the Davis Street Family Resource Center.

One by one, people filed through two lines in their cars, almost like a drive-through, while volunteers stacked their trunks and back seats with food and gifts as part of Davis Street's Holiday Food and Toy Basket program.

Most of the folks represented the poor and disadvantaged of San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Castro Valley and unincorporated Alameda County. But when people left Davis Street, they were rich in spirit, with smiles on their faces and thankful for the holiday blessings bestowed on their families.

"I think this is our way and the community's way of respecting them as people — as residents of our community," Rose Padilla Johnson, executive director of Davis Street, said of the annual event.

Each year around the holidays, Davis Street Family Resource Center distributes food and toys to local families through itsholiday program. In all, more than 3,500 people are served.

Along with the Alameda County Fire Department and other volunteers, the Holiday Food and Toy Basket program has become the agency's largest and most popular event.

And it has grown significantly with the community's help since its inception more than 30 years ago, Johnson said.

When the program started at First Christian Church on Davis Street, there were just a few volunteers all rushing to pack food and toys in boxes themselves to give out to families who would come.

But firefighters from nearby Fire Station No. 10 came in "like the cavalry" and started helping out, Johnson said. Soon after, the program would be organized sort of like an assembly line, with more volunteers added, more families served and the program more organized — and that tradition has been kept alive to this day.

"Henry Ford would be proud," Johnson said, "because it's a production — and it's a labor of love."

The firefighters say they don't think twice about helping out with the program each year because it is just an extension of what they already do every day.

"This is what they're all about," said fire Chief Sheldon Gilbert. "These are the type of people they are — service men and women who want to make a difference in their community."

On Wednesday, as families arrived in their cars at Davis Street's warehouse, scores of volunteers from the agency, the Fire Department and the community — including several City Council members — carried to them boxes full of goodies. Most people didn't even have to get out of their cars.

In order to get assistance from the program, families had to bring verification of their income level.

For Councilman Jim Prola, who was busy all morning loading up boxes in people's trunks, it was more than just about fulfilling his obligation as a public official.

Prola said his reason for participating stemmed from the fact that his father and uncle were both firefighters, and he felt it was his duty to provide that help.

"I was brought up in the spirit of trying to help other people," Prola said. "And I'm just thankful that there is a place like this in San Leandro."

Johnson said her only disappointment this year was that more toys weren't donated — but that was mainly due to the recent lead scare involving children's toys. Nevertheless, people in the San Leandro community and beyond still responded to the agency's call, she said, and holiday dreams were fulfilled once again.

"It's that time of the year for this," Johnson said. "And years from now, I think a child will look back and say, "Someone felt I was important enough to get a new toy," even if it only cost five dollars."