Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Squeals of joy could be heard from the parking lot.
And the reasons became quickly apparent inside the multiuse room at Kermit R. Booker Sr. Elementary School. To the accompaniment of Santa’s chimes and Christmas carols, the Latino Peace Officers Association, in conjunction with several other Las Vegas organizations and businesses, was distributing gifts collected in its annual “Christmas en el Barrio” toy drive.
“I grew up in Las Vegas, and I know a lot of families could use the help,” Metro Police Officer Antonio Munoz said. “Also, it is always good to show these kids that the police department is not only out to arrest people. We are in the community and want to help.”
The drive is in its fourth year and is part of a nationwide program by the Latino Peace Officers Association. This is the third year that the local chapter chose to visit one school and provide a gift for each student.
In 2009, after a less structured toy giveaway the year prior, Munoz and his childhood friend Pablo Covarrubias, who owns EXIT United Realty, decided it would be fun to visit their alma mater, Sunrise Acres Elementary School, and donate gifts to every student.
“It was awesome to get to go back to Sunrise, relive old memories and help the current students,” Covarrubias said. “I grew up in the projects, right there by the school on 28th Street, and it certainly is needed. Growing up there, you hope that one day you can be successful and give something back.”
Since then, “Christmas en el Barrio” has been held in a different school each year.
On Friday, 9-year-old fourth-grader Fernanda Bernal scanned the tables full of Barbies, Nerf toys, action figures, board games, sports equipment and other toys, and selected a friendship bracelet kit.
“I like bracelets,” she said quietly. “I don’t have any bracelets now, but I’m going to go home and make some.”
Teachers, police officers and other volunteers, including Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly — bedecked with his own Santa Claus hat — helped distribute toys and maintain order while nearly 600 children, between the ages of 3 and 11, filtered through the auditorium to select their presents.
Others who helped with the drive include the law firm Dallas Horton and Associates, which held an event to collect donations on Dec. 2; the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Foundation; Joe’s Barbershop and Abuelas Tacos.
“It’s wonderful to see the kids’ faces and excitement as they pick out toys,” Abuelas Tacos owner Leslie Valdes said. “The kids are so thankful. One little girl even told me she picked something out for her little sister instead of herself.”
Booker Principal Marcus Mason said the student population at the North Las Vegas school is in need of some extra help at this time of year.
“Every single student gets to come through and pick one toy, and it really does mean a lot to them,” Mason said. “The previous principal, Dr. Beverly Mathis, started celebrating kids’ birthdays because she realized some kids wouldn’t have birthday parties. We’ve continued that tradition, as well. We become a family to these kids.”
The charity did not end with the toy drive.
As the toy drive wound down, and surplus toys were gathered for donation to the UMC pediatric center, another group started to enter the auditorium with hundreds of bags.
Metro Police employees were delivering food — nutritious offerings and sweet treats — for Booker students to take home for the holidays.