Southgate toy drive builds friendships, hope

Neighborhood event provides gifts for needy local children

For the past four years, a festive neighborhood ritual has taken place in the quiet Southgate neighborhood in Palo Alto, and it's about to begin again the week of Nov. 22 and run through Dec. 10. Residents will arrive at the home of Jim and Gail McFall, bearing gifts.

One by one, the toy count rises: multicultural and multiracial dolls, nonviolent toys and games, family board games, gift cards for teens, portable CD players, watches and books and more.

Residents place the colorful, unwrapped toys in barrels on the couple's porch. When neighbors arrive on Dec. 5 for the Southgate Neighborhood 5th Annual Toy Drive and holiday party, the barrels will overflow, the McFalls predicted.

"It's neat to see. Someone will walk up with five or six gifts," Jim said.

The barrels of toys will go to local, needy children who might not otherwise have a gift to open on Christmas morning. The toys benefit InnVision's Holiday Toy Shoppe, where low-income, local parents can select and wrap gifts for their children for free.

Southgate residents provided roughly one-tenth of the 1,200 gifts the toy outlet distributed in 2009.

"Last year was our best collection -- even with the economic downturn. We collected 135 gifts and filled two barrels and had more than could fit," Jim said on Wednesday morning.

The McFalls are hoping to beat last year's record, they said.

Jim is also trying to get other Palo Alto neighborhoods to do toy drives of their own.

"It's not that difficult to do something like it. Even if you only get 10 gifts, that's 10 kids who might not have gotten anything," he said.

The toy drive provides a deeper sense of community as well as a sense of philanthropy, the couple said.

The quiet Southgate community is nestled between Palo Alto High School on Churchill Avenue to the north and Peers Park to the south, and Alma Street and El Camino Real to the east and west respectively. Like many other neighborhoods, busy residents often don't get to mingle outside, Gail said. But on the biggest day of the toy drive, the Dec. 5 holiday party, residents munch on cookies and sip cider and hot chocolate together. It's an opportunity for older residents who have lived there for 40 or 50 years to meet new arrivals, the McFalls said.

"The concept was to gather neighbors together and get to know each other and give back," Gail said, noting that she is also involved in a similar program at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati, where she is the community-affairs manager.

The toy drive also helps to raise awareness for the Southgate Neighborhood Watch program, which the McFalls lead. It helps when people get to know their neighbors, Gail said.

The toy drive instills a sense of neighborhood values in young people, Gail said.

"It's fun to watch the kids' reactions when they put the toys in the barrels. It gives them a good sense of community," she said.

The McFalls also travel well beyond Southgate to help build neighborhoods in devastated communities. Jim is an architect, and in August, they went to New Orleans to work with Rebuilding Together, reconstructing neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

The couple have also traveled to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and built 300-square-foot homes for people who were living in chicken coops, they said.

The payoff of the voluntarism?

"Getting that feedback -- the response," he said of people who were grateful for their new homes.

The McFalls recalled the hope they helped restore in New Orleans. Gail said she saw it in residents' eyes.

"It's a faith that everyone would come to help them there," she said. Without that help, the rebuilding "wouldn't have happened."

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