OAKLEY -- Valeria Lugo's Christmas wish came true.
The 4-year-old Oakley girl dreamed of putting presents under a tree covered with purple lights and a bright star on top. But unlike previous holidays, the Lugos weren't able to afford a tree this year.
A sister was born three months ago, and Valeria's father, Eugenio, had his days cut from three to two at the gardening company where he works, forcing the growing family to rent out space in their small home to her two uncles to help pay the bills.
"We basically told her that because of limited funds, we weren't going to have a tree," said Valeria's mother, Benita Lugo. "She was understanding, but it was still difficult."
Thanks to a $51 Walmart gift card provided by Valeria's preschool with the help of a $4,500 Share the Spirit grant, the Lugos were able to purchase a 4-foot-tall noble fir.
There was enough money left over to buy Valeria an outfit and two sweatshirts -- one pink and one teal -- to stay warm.
"It's just such an emotional thing to see her excited," Benita Lugo said. "God doesn't leave us."
Oakley State Preschool, a government-subsidized program that provides free early childhood education for low-income families, used the grant to provide each family of its 88 students with a gift card.
Several families at the preschool said $51 went toward holiday meals, a few extra toys, clothes and other essential needs.
For Cecilia Felan, the gift card means her 4-year-old daughter, Tianna, will have Christmas presents to open. A single parent of two girls, Felan lost her full-time job at a dermatologist's office in October and was worried there would be no holiday cheer this year.
"It's something that's just priceless," she said.
Most of the families in the preschool program are underemployed or unemployed, especially given the economic downturn of the past few years, teacher Julie Linder said.
The preschool waiting list has increased over the past few years as families with limited means are looking for a way to prepare their children for kindergarten, said program director Tammy Gonis.
As part of the preschool's celebration, families were recently treated to a morning of arts-and-crafts activities, handmade gifts, a potluck lunch and a visit from Santa Claus -- all made possible through donations.
Parents used their own cameras and cellphones to snap shots with Santa during Wednesday's event at Oakley Elementary.
"A lot of our families aren't able to go to the mall and take pictures with Santa. If you have several children and aren't working, that could be a meal for your whole family," Linder said.
The program can't afford to provide additional financial support for families, so giving gift cards strikes an emotional chord with teachers, as well.
"I remember recently there was one girl whose family didn't have much money; they took the gift card and bought her a new winter coat. She was so proud and wore that coat around school," teacher Barbara Skaggs said. "To see the parents tear up and have such heartfelt appreciation. It's a wonderful feeling."
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by this newspaper, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Readers who wish to help can clip the coupon accompanying this story and send it to the address printed on it. The Volunteer Center of the East Bay administers the fund. Readers with questions and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay at 925-472-5760.
To find out more about the Oakley State Preschool, call 925-625-6365.