Over 200 volunteers led by Chief Elf Lisa Hoffmaster deliver a complete holiday experience from the moment kids walked into Santa, family crafting, new toys – even popcorn to go!
For a kid, attending the annual Children’s Christmas Party at Christian Outreach in Action must be akin to walking through a holiday-themed amusement park. From the moment they entered the old Third Street church property in downtown Long Beach their senses were tickled with holiday sounds, colors, scents, and plenty of cheer.
Judging by their reactions at this year’s event on Dec. 14, the intent to flood children’s senses with “general holiday cheer” succeeded.
Throughout the tour of the big 86-year-old structure at Linden Avenue, visitors were welcomed with entertainment, face-painting, bags of treats, full-family holiday crafting, visits with Santa, a trip through Toyland, and a final bag of freshly baked popcorn.
Shepherding more than 200 volunteers to make the event a reality was Lisa Hoffmaster, someone who never stopped moving in her perfectly adorned elf outfit complete with pointy shoes. It was the seventh straight year Hoffmaster served as Chief Elf after she first was asked to head the event by COA Executive Director Dixie Dohrmann.
In summer 2012, Hoffmaster’s best friend passed after a battle with cancer. Her friend was known as someone who celebrated the holidays with gusto, and as the holidays approached Hoffmaster didn’t know how she would get through it.
The COA Christmas Party was not new; it had been staged by other organizers for years. But the timing of being asked to run such a big event for children, for the first time, while still in mourning seemed daunting to Hoffmaster.
“It came at a really powerful, low point in my life, and gave me something to focus on,” she said. Hoffmaster and organizers that first year had little to go on, and for the most part started from scratch. She remembers the entertainment as her friend’s band sitting on the chapel stage all day.
On Dec. 14, a variety of local performers impressed children and families, from the Wilson High School Choir to Hawaiian luau dancers and more, for five full hours. Dozens of organizations provided help, and the event has grown to a point where families camp outside to be among the first inside.
“Now it just has evolved into this miracle,” she said.
Outside of COA about an hour before doors officially open, it is a tradition for Hoffmaster to let someone use her mobile phone and take a photo: of her in front of the line facing west on Third Street. “I take that same photo each year, so I have one from every party. I call it ‘Launching the Ship,’ ” she said. “It occurs right around 8 a.m. as we start to let the first 300 people into the party. Then the party kicks off at 9 a.m. with a blessing and the Wilson High School Choir.”
First in line was Yadira Padilla and five children – her two and three others ushered by her sister and mother. The family got in line at 5 a.m. the previous day and held the spot for more than 24 hours. The past two years they were second in line. “This is the first year we’re number one,” she said with a smile. Her children asked for dolls, cars, and shoes.
About 30 feet back of Yadira was little Chris Williams, not quite age 3, patiently playing with the pedals of an upside-down bicycle as his mother Brenda watched. They set a crate down in the spot the day before, prior to COA’s daily breakfast that starts at 7 a.m. They were two hours behind Padilla and her family. Chris asked for cars and trains.
“He loves anything that makes noise and likes A, B, Cs. He’s a simple kid,” Brenda said.
There was lots of help, from boys and their fathers from Boy Scout Troop 14 blowing bubbles and distributing candy to people in line down Third Street all the way to Atlantic Avenue, to volunteers from Molina Healthcare ushering families first downstairs to the “milk and cookies” room and Santa, then back around upstairs to Toyland.
Inside the chapel, Dana P. of Molina Healthcare appreciated the opportunity to help bring holiday cheer to local kids and families.
“It’s so rewarding to see the kids’ faces. They’re so excited to see Santa,” she said. Nearby, young Isabel of team Molina experienced her first volunteering experience, handing every single child a decorated bag they could use to hold pencils, candy and completed crafts along the way.
Every moment a child is in the building, the intent is to keep their minds awed with spectacle, from the music when first entering the chapel to the tour into new rooms all the way to the finale of entering Toyland, COA’s social hall filled with an estimated 2,100 toys.
“Just general holiday cheer is what we call it.”
Inside Toyland, volunteer elves from the St. Cornelius and St. Bartholomew Catholic churches carefully managed a steady stream of children of all ages, whose eyes widened the moment they entered the room.
“We have a room filled from floor to ceiling with toys, in every different age group,” said Hoffmaster, a fund-development professional by trade, including for Food Finders, a COA partner.
Before they get there, though, they spend memorable moments downstairs in what has to be a pleasant surprise for mothers and fathers. The first thing they see is a room set up so they can have cookies and milk, and make holiday crafts along with their children – kind of like families do at home over the holidays.
Serving little cups of chocolate milk to visitors was Rosemary, who came as a volunteer from the Veterans Affairs facility on Seventh Street in Long Beach. Rosemary volunteers for a variety of organizations in town but the Christmas Party was her first experience at COA.
She took a break in a room adjacent to the Milk & Cookies Room with dozens of other volunteers who enjoyed pizza, cold sandwiches and more to recharge their energy to return to their posts along the children’s tour. “It’s amazing what they do here,” Rosemary said.
Dedicated volunteers like Rosemary were not overlooked by Hoffmaster or COA staff. “I need to mention how important my Elf Committee Members are to the success of this event,” Hoffmaster said. “Debby, Carole, Ken, Lori and Marissa need to be acknowledged as well. It’s NOT just me. I have the world’s best ELVES!”
Once children pick out their toy, they got a new special treat this year, as a generous donor contributed two popcorn machines that were placed outside the rear exit so every kid left with a bag of hot popcorn.
All told, the Children’s Christmas Party aligns with the mission of Christian Outreach in Action: seeking to improve the quality of life of the people it serves.
About COA Christian Outreach in Action is a nondenominational, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that has been serving the community since 1981. It provides hot meals daily, a food bank twice a week, a clothing giveaway, legal advice services and more to families and individuals in need. See http://www.coalongbeach.org.
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