Eight years ago the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office asked Rotary Club of Los Angeles (“LA 5”) for volunteers to staff a holiday toy giveaway in South Central LA. Mayor Villaraigosa had started the annual one-day event to distribute donated toys and other items that his office received each year from local businesses and organizations. The event, named “Angel City,” had previously taken place in Exposition Park, near the historic Los Angeles Coliseum, but in 2010 it moved to a church in South Central, closer to the City communities most in need of “a little Christmas” for their younger residents. LA 5 mustered 90 odd volunteers who joined parishioners of the host church to stage a toy giveaway. An estimated 1,000 children, accompanied by parents and other family members, showed up to collect toy and other gifts, as well as an oven-ready holiday meal provided by the LDS Church.
The next year LA 5 formed the Angel City Celebration Committee and officially adopted the event as one of its major perennial community service projects. Partnering first with the Los Angeles City Parks and Recreation Department and later with the LA County Parks Department, the Committee moved the Celebration to parks in South LA and adjoining neighborhoods and started to recruit participation in the event by other clubs in Rotary District 5280, corporate sponsors, local non-profit organizations and the community at large. The size of the Celebration increased substantially and so did the scope of its mission. While the gifting of toys remained central to its purpose — “to make glad the heart of childhood” in an area where the joy of the season can be in short supply—the Committee saw a larger opportunity for an event that could have a more lasting impact on the community. A half century after the Watts Riots of 1965, South Central LA remained one of the most economically disadvantaged parts of Los Angeles. Though the demographics had changed dramatically, the endemic problems of the area persisted: high unemployment, lack of infrastructure, gang violence, environmental and other chronic health problems and, of course, poverty and its other accompanying ills.
Using the toy giveaway as an attraction, Rotarians and our partnering organizations began to build a more expansive Angel City Celebration. Through Rotary Club members in the health care field, local hospitals, clinics and medical and dental schools were invited to provide testing and other clinical services at the event. Literacy advocates and public libraries initiated a book fair, giving away thousands of books each year. City, state and federal agencies sent representatives to explain the various services they offered and how to obtain them. To entertain attendees while the kids waited for their toys, the Celebration featured carolers,
other musical and dance performances, arts and crafts programs and just plain fun activities (including, at various times, a portable rock wall, bouncing houses, a hockey rink and a snow field). Celebrities as well as political figures showed up. And for the last 5 years Angel City Celebration has served all morning attendees a pancake breakfast, complete with juice and sausages. All the volunteers got early morning, eye opening coffee and pastries, hamburgers and sandwiches at lunch and a mid-afternoon snack.
A quick tour of the Angel City Celebration illustrates the extent to which the event has grown. On December 2nd at Franklin D. Roosevelt Park in South Central, over 350 volunteers showed up from 24 Rotary clubs, 5 Rotaract clubs, 14 Interact clubs and local service organizations, churches and businesses. Some volunteers came as early as 5:00 am and most arrived by 7:00am—to set up for the event, serve the pancake breakfasts, register attendees and, of course, distribute toys to more than 1,000 joyous children. (The favorite volunteer job at the Celebration remains being a “personal toy shopper” who help the kids select their gifts.) By the numbers, volunteers:
- Prepared and served over 2,000 pancake breakfasts
- Handed out more than 1,500 toys, 2,000 books and 1,000 pairs of shoes
- Set up and cleared away some 40 exhibition booths and trailers, including 8 mobile health service clinics
The numbers, however, cannot measure the lasting impact of the Celebration. Bringing joy to children, even for a day, is a priceless gift, but the Celebration’s more enduring benefit is to nurture better health in the community through the screenings, information about good health practices and resources and other services provided by the mobile clinics and other exhibitors. Of almost equal importance, is the joy and satisfaction that the Celebration gives to its volunteers, Rotarians and non-Rotarians alike. It is the animate spirit of Rotary, of Service above Service and it clearly passes the Four Way Test. It passes a fifth test as well: it was fun for all concerned.
After 8 years as Angel City Celebration Chair, I am retiring. Next year we will have new Chairs who will bring new ideas and energy to Angel City. I want to thank all the volunteers who have helped me organize and stage this event for last 8 years. You are my heroes, and without you Angel City would not have become the impactful event that is.
Here is the link to the Angel City Photo Gallery for 2017. Enjoy the happy faces of the kids at the event; their joy is priceless!