Working in his garage alongside his 5-year-old daughter, Rob Curcio of Half Moon Bay wastes no time stuffing the 65 large bags in front of him.
As jolly as Santa's elves themselves, he will fill them with sleeping bags, jackets, wool hats, socks, towels, toiletries, and shirts or jeans. All have been purchased or donated by a few local residents and businesses and will serve as great gifts and surprises for the men he will deliver them to next week.
For Curcio, feelings of giving must be as good as receiving, as he talks of the experiences he's had for the past six years sitting down to dinner with the men he packs the bags for.
"They are so thankful and it is a total surprise for them," he says of the farm and nursery workers, all Latino men, who attend Puente de la Costa Sur's evening dinner and celebration one week before Christmas.
Curcio was initially inspired to begin volunteering when his oldest daughter's grade school class took on a shopping project for the Coastside Hope's Adopt-a-Family Program.
"That got me thinking about how I could help," he said, and signed up with Half Moon Bay charity Coastside Hospitality. "And I feel for these men, who work so hard for their families and do not take the time to see that their own needs are met," he says of those he will dine with.
Not anticipating or awaiting the essential items that will make their daily lives more manageable, the dinner guests have worked hard to send money back to Mexico or to support their families locally in the rural areas of the South Coast, including Pescadero, La Honda, Loma Mar, and San Gregorio.
Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of Puente, says the gifts bring a silent appreciation, more than anything else, to the receivers. Yes, there are also tears, smiles, and expressions of disbelief when recipients see the gifts before them. "It looks like Santa came," says Lobel. "And there's a really beautiful, huge kindness there."
Lobel has been at Puente for 10 years, since she first moved to the South Coast area and volunteered with a distribution program when the organization was known as Puente de la Costa Sur. In 2007, it merged with North Street Community Resource Center so a broader range of services could be provided.
Lobel was instrumental in helping make that transition and has worked for four years as the director, managing a core staff of nine full-time adults, while running one of the largest youth employment programs on the Coast. Thirty to forty high school and college youths work part time at Puente. The organization is governed by a board of directors.
"This is a very invisible population," says Lobel of the people Puente serves, who mainly reside in the 160-miles of undeveloped land tucked near the Santa Cruz Mountains and fifty miles south of San Francisco.
There is no dentist or doctor, pharmacy, laundromat, or stores in the area, and the one bus route is not enough to serve those who have no cars or driver's licenses, with 17.8 winding miles into town.
People in these areas are challenged to have things other Coastsiders take for granted, including proper transportation, good quality water, clean living situations, and other basic needs.
Tricia Dell, Development Director for Puente, says, "There's a bigger picture and larger issues. These are people that feed us and I see the injustices they face. The agricultural economy is suffering and there are ripple effects."
Dell, also a Coastside resident, says her focus is on raising funds from individuals, because if they can be convinced to come witness the assistance Puente provides, they will be inspired to contribute. The mission is to make a connection between Anglo and Latino communities.
"It's an experience that you are not prepared for," Dell says of walking into Puente and participating in their programs or special events. "It's the caring that's important," Dell says of those who give time and money to Puente.
And money is needed to keep things going. Throughout the year, Puente offers continuing education programs like English As A Second Language (ESL) courses, tutoring and a homework club. Youth leadership and development is another focus to offer emotional support to kids, as well as guidance in graduating high school and applying for college. Community building is the third prong. There is even a Zumba class. "We offer our safety net projects, but also the chance to make connections," says Dell.
Groups like the Boy Scouts or the local knitting group Knitzvah assist Puente in meeting their goals by supplying items like handmade blankets or scarves. At the beginning of the last school year, over 200 backpacks filled to the brim were distributed to kids. And programs like the one Curcio will participate in on December 19 also add to Puente's "wealth" of services.
On December 17, Puente will host its Holiday Posada, a celebration of the Christmas story, focusing on the recreation of the journey of Mary and Joseph, where participants walk from churches in Pescadero to a lot at 350 Stage Road.
"It serves as a metaphor for the pilgrimage that all strangers take," says Lobel. "When you came here, perhaps you were turned away time and again and you eventually had to rely on a stranger. This is a community where many things are possible."