jrodriguez@mercurynews.com

Dear Santa: There's a venerable community organization in San Jose that's running really low on Christmas toys and books for low-income children -- a whopping 9,000 gifts short as of Tuesday. The group needs them by Friday. That's right, this Friday.

Why so early? To get them wrapped and placed under Christmas trees, where children can gaze at their names on the gift tags, wonder what's inside the box and wish like mad for Christmas morning to arrive sooner than it possibly can.

"We're not even half way there," said Carol Stephenson, volunteer coordinator at Sacred Heart Community Service, "and we have more kids signed up (than) ever before."

In addition to offering year-round food and clothing assistance, computer literacy classes, English-language lessons and after-school programs, the agency just south of downtown San Jose seems to have perfected the art of holiday toy drives over the past 49 years.

Sacred Heart registered 6,000 children this year from low-income, Santa Clara County families. They include immigrants, unemployed U.S. citizens and members of the working poor who struggle monthly to pay rent, food and transportation bills. A lot of them live within walking distance of Sacred Heart in the city's predominantly Latino Washington-Gardner district.

The group had only about 6,000 toys, books and bicycles on hand at the beginning of the week. That may seem like enough, but every gift doesn't fit every child. Sacred Heart usually collects three times as many toys as children to ensure a wide variety.

Stephenson said a late Thanksgiving Day this year gave donors and participating partners, including local high schools and churches, a week less to organize their toy drives on behalf of the Sacred Heart program.

She said a few of the poorest children will receive their only gifts from Sacred Heart. But for most of the working-poor families, the toy program offers a guarantee of something nice under the tree and relief from the stress of having to choose between the essentials and gifts.

On Friday, the parents -- not their kids -- will be escorted into a large room at the center. Volunteers trained in what's popular and appropriate for each age group will help the parents select gifts. For example, grade-school boys like Lego action figures. Teenage girls like cellular earphones and "Hunger Games" paraphernalia.

Parents will get to select up to two toys and a book for each child, and then move into another room for the gift-wrapping. A number of bicycles will be given away by lottery.

"Every parent loves that feeling," Stephenson said, "to shop, to choose the right gift and to wrap them."

One of those parents, Jasmin Espinoza, was in line Monday for a free box of food, which this month included a holiday ham. She'll drop by again Friday for gifts for her 5-year-old son.

"My husband works construction and it's really slow this time of year for him," she said in Spanish. "At least we know our son will have a nice toy and a book."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.

How to Donate
To donate toys, books or cash for toys to Sacred Heart Community Service by Friday: 408-278-2171; www.sacredheartcs.org. The group also seeks volunteers.