A Christmas party hosted by a Midtown Shopping Center business owner for an estimated 800 school children and their families brought abundant food, gifts and joy to Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto on Wednesday evening.
The party was thrown by Ani Safavi, owner of Como Esta? Taqueria in Palo Alto, and Moms Against Poverty, a Burlingame nonprofit organization headed by Iranian and Iranian-American women.
Approximately 91 percent of the school's students live below the poverty line.
Paulina Salazar brought her daughter, Katherine, 8, a student at Cesar Chavez, and two young friends.
"I love it. It is so fun for the kids," she said, watching third-grader Filiberto Zaragoza's eyes light up as he unwrapped a LEGO jet airplane kit.
"It feels good. Palo Alto seems like they think we have low schools and a low community. That people come to see us and don't feel in danger, that's good. I live here, and it's been really good," she said of the community.
This isn't the first year that Safavi and Moms Against Poverty have teamed up for charity.
Last year Safavi approached the group about doing a toy and food giveaway at the taqueria. In only 10 days, they amassed 400 toys and put together bags of food for the families. But they found that many people did not have transportation to get to Palo Alto, so this year the party was brought to East Palo Alto, she said.
The dinner and gift-giving included Santa Claus, music and a twinkling tree. Children who depend on school meal programs for two out of three daily meals were able to take food home after the party, school Principal Amika Guillaume said.
Safavi used her restaurant on Middlefield Road to cook dozens of chickens and hams and gallons of beans for the party.
"I have been in the restaurant business in Palo Alto for 25 years. I have a passion for food and children. I have been successful, so I thought, 'Why not use my business as an anchor to help the community?'" she said.
Midtown residents and the restaurant's customers filled the colorful donation boxes Safavi placed at the restaurant's entrance and in the indoor seating area. The Burlingame Fire Department donated 10 bags of toys this year, she said.
Rob Steele, zoo director of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, donated 170 toys through the City of Palo Alto's Toys for Kids drive.
"I think it's fantastic," he said of the effort.
Between 20 and 30 volunteers spent last Saturday and Sunday wrapping 900 gifts, Safavi said. On Wednesday morning, her car was filled to the roof with wrapped gifts. Safavi forgot about them when she went to drive her son to school.
"He had to hide under the presents," she said.
East Palo Alto police officers handed out the gifts -- a way to help put the officers in a positive light, she said. A mass of children crowded around the officers as they tossed age-appropriate gifts to each recipient.
Guillaume said the party and toy/food giveaway fills an enormous gap. Most students rely on breakfast, lunch and two snacks provided by the school each day for most of their nutrition. With the holiday break, the students will not be fed at school. The bags of rolls, meats and fresh oranges and bananas will help fill that gap during the break, she said.
At the party, colorful red and green tablecloths adorned a sea of round tables like giant polka dots. Each had a centerpiece assigning the seated families as a team. Each bore the name of a college or university: Team SCU, Team Vassar, Team Chapman, Team UCSC -- hopeful and encouraging reminders that the students can fulfill their dreams and the community is behind them.
"You feel close to yourself and to everyone," volunteer Negin Lotfi said, dishing out slabs of ham and roasted chicken.
Moms Against Poverty helps needy children in the United States through its Helping Hand Project to provide food, clothing and educational assistance. Overseas, Moms Against Poverty provides food and shelter, has opened orphanages, provided medical care and education to help break the cycle of poverty among the neediest in Sierra Leone, Iran, Cambodia, Afghanistan, cofounder Delfarib Fanaie said.
Already, Fanaie and Guillaume are strategizing how to be better organized for the onslaught next year.
For Safavi, the opportunity to open her kitchen and her heart was a great gift, she said.
"Just to see them happy for that moment. It may not resolve the situation permanently, but it's wonderful to see the community so excited. It's a wonderful way to create an anchor," she said.