A young boy opens his bag and peers in. As his eyes light up, he is heard to say, "In this bag are all of my favorite things!"
Each year, volunteers from the County of San Diego, Department of Environmental Health (DEH) and many volunteer non-profit groups from around the county join The Christmas Train - Three Kings Tecate event to deliver donated goods to thousands of children struck by poverty in Tecate, Mexico. Now in its 20th year, the event is in celebration of the Mexican holiday known as The Day of the Three Kings, or Dia de los Reyes, which celebrates the day upon which the three kings arrived at Bethlehem with gifts for Jesus. This year’s event will take place on January 8th in the Tecate Baseball Stadium.
It is called the “Christmas Train” because up until a few years ago volunteers travelled to Tecate by train and the Three Kings would disembark beside the baseball stadium and walk in. But for the last several years, storms have damaged the tracks on the Mexico side of the border which is in need of repair (a project that has begun). This year, volunteers will walk or drive across the border and the Three Kings will enter the stadium on camel and horseback.
Each year, more than 3,500 children from infants to kids up to age 10 attend the event with their families and receive a gift bag from one of the three kings while singers, dancers and clowns entertain the crowd. Over 100 volunteers from both Tecate, Mexico and the U.S. work together to organize the event. DEH has been a supporter of the Christmas Train since 1999 and every year their participation has grown.
In fact, visiting Tecate on The Day of the Three Kings has become a DEH tradition.
“Many of these children are very poor and often don’t have their basic needs met, living in shacks with no running water or plumbing,” explained Veronica Archer, Environmental Health Specialist with DEH. “In school, they are not supplied with paper or writing utensils and some go to bed hungry because there is no food to eat. We are so happy to be in a position to give something back.”
This event brings out the generous side of DEH staff and their families. One staff member’s child used tooth fairy money to buy notebooks and others have used their allowance to purchase toys for their peers across the border.
“All donations are appreciated and utilized,” said Archer. “We have received rolled pennies and large checks. The wonderful thing is that ALL donations and every penny collected go directly to making sure that the bags distributed to the children on the Day of the Three Kings are stuffed with goodies.”
DEH staff members start their efforts in full swing during “back to school” events in July. When staff purchase school supplies for their own family members, they remember the children south of the border. It’s hard to imagine children going to school without access to paper or pencils, which is why DEH has set a goal of supplying every child with a notebook and two pencils. Year after year, that goal has been met.
“It’s such an honor to promote education and creativity to the thousands of children that wait in line in anticipation of receiving their brand new notebook,” explained Archer.
It is not just children who receive needed gifts; DEH creates 1000 bags for parents of infants and expectant mothers who also attend the event. Baby items such as blankets, bottles, knitted hats, mittens and diapers are collected by DEH staff to supply the baby bags.
Once all items are collected, DEH hosts a goodie bag packing session in early January. Then on The Day of the Three Kings, staff travel to Mexico to assist with the distribution of the bags.
A “King” will host one of three different stations: one for girls, one for boys and one for babies. Participants receive their bags from one of the Three Kings which DEH staff have historically filled the role of. On the day of the event, the Kings work tirelessly for hours handing out bags without a break, but it’s one of the best jobs of the day.
“I feel blessed to be able to witness the kindness and generosity associated with this event,” said Archer. “It is very heartwarming to watch the smiles on children’s’ faces as they come forward to be greeted by a King. And year after year, more and more of our staff participate.”
Archer says that success comes in little steps all along the way during preparation and throughout the event. There is success when the first notebook is donated and when the last needed notebook is secured. There is success with every donation because there is a smile awaiting it. There is success when DEH staff work for hours in a cold warehouse packing the gift bags. There is success getting the items across the border and when volunteers are welcomed into their neighboring country.
“But above all,” says Archer. “The collaboration between volunteers from both sides of the border, who work toward a common goal of bringing a big smile to a child’s face is what makes this event a huge success. If you are moved to do something, then do it. All good deeds are worth doing.”