That’s how Birk again came to be at the Tracy Community Center this week, ensuring smooth sailing for the families seeking help this holiday season while new director Steve Abercrombie attended to other early-in-the-week responsibilities.
Despite 31 years of effort, it’s an obligation Birk sees more as blessing than as burden.
“I’m so blessed,” he said, glowing about the time he’s spent bringing holiday cheer to families that wouldn’t otherwise have much. “Just knowing that there’s 1,600 or 1,700 kids who have toys... One kid would be enough for me.”
This year, Birk’s estimate was conservative. Between two sign-up days Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 29 and 30, a record 1,961 children sought help from Brighter Christmas. That’s 75 more than last year.
The number of families signing up also rose, from 870 to 875. That relatively small increase, Birk said, was actually a pleasant surprise considering what he expected.
“This was sort of surprising, because I expected more than this,” said Birk, who explained it’s a good thing the number didn’t jump dramatically. “We’re not trying to break records — we’re trying to do the opposite.”
Longtime volunteer Nancy Cole, however, said the charity saw “more new applicants than ever before.” She said many people who applied were living several families to a house, a sure sign of bad economic times.
Dorlane Thrasher, another BC veteran, said she’d never seen so many explain their income by saying they’d just been laid off.
Twenty-six-year-old single mother Nesha Close was one of those who applied for a food basket and round of toys for her five children, ages 8 through 2. The working mom said it’s the second year the charity has made her family’s holiday merrier, help that’s “greatly appreciated.”
“My kids know the meaning of Christmas isn’t to receive toys — we’re Christians, and we know it’s to celebrate the birth of Jesus,” Close said. “But it (Brighter Christmas) brought a good experience to see their faces in the morning when they see the toys.”
Walking Close through the sign-up process was Sarah Avila-Ward. Close was the final of dozens of people Avila-Ward helped on her first day as a Brighter Christmas volunteer.
“Because (my husband and I) have donated in the past, it’s nice to see the beginning of the process,” she said, alluding to the many more December days volunteers will spend picking up donations, sorting food and toys and distributing the gifts and baskets.
“It’s nice seeing all the families affected by this process.”
She was far from the only volunteer pitching in, as tables were filled with sign-up helpers even as the doors to the community center closed Tuesday afternoon.
One of those sticking around past 2 p.m. was Olivia Vieira, a second-year volunteer. She emphasized how important Brighter Christmas is to the families seeking help, that for many without extended families or close friends, charities such as this one are the only support networks they have.
“They don’t have anything to fall back on,” Vieira said.
But once again in a time of great need, Abercrombie said, the community has stepped up big to provide that surrogate safety net. He said there’s been an outpouring of volunteers, trucks packed full of toys and food, and generous donations including a $7,500 gift from Pacific Medical.
“It’s awesome how many people who wanted to help,” said Brighter Christmas’ first-year director. “It really makes you realize how special a place Tracy is.”
Those who want to help make the holidays happier through Brighter Christmas have several opportunities to help.
People are still being sought to be “arrested” for the charity jail on Wednesday, Dec. 8. The inmates will be treated well, said former charity director Gene Birk, but they’ll have to stay behind bars in downtown Tracy until they can raise enough money for their bail.
Also, volunteers are needed on Dec. 17, 18 and 19 to pick up, sort, and box food and toys, as well as for the Dec. 22 distribution and Dec. 23 clean-up.
But those who want to help don’t just have to volunteer, Birk said — a check in the charity’s name, even if it’s just for a few dollars, would do nicely. Birk said any donations can be mailed to Brighter Christmas, P.O. Box 642 Tracy, 95378.
Anyone who wants to be jailed, volunteer or has questions can call 833-3309.