By Mira Reverente
“They like to ask me where my reindeers are and if I’m going to their house on Christmas Eve,” said Gary Cran, 66, better known as “Santa” to a small community in Oxnard. “I hope I fit in their chimneys or I might have to use the front door.”
Since 2010, the Vietnam veteran has been spreading cheer to the children of Nyeland Acres, a community of about 2,500 residents, parallel to the 101 freeway. Gran hobnobbed, chatted and posed for photos, while the kids and their parents waited in line for the toy distribution event to begin, the culmination of the annual Santa to the Sea bevy of races that take place every second Sunday in December.
“I think we easily had 700 to 800 kids here today,” said Jeanne Garcia, who has spear-headed the toy drive since year one. Unbeknownst to many, the iconic Santa statue which marks the start line of the half-marathon, used to be in a strip mall in Carpinteria.
“It was going to be demolished and dumped,” said Garcia “And then Mike Barber intervened, brought it over to Nyeland Acres and refurbished it.” Barber is race director of the eight-year-old Santa to the Sea, which includes a half-marathon, a relay, a 5K and kids’ races. Approximately 4,000 runners and walkers come from in and out of the country and state, to participate in the fun and festive running event, traversing the streets of Oxnard from the Santa statue to the Channel Islands Harbor.
“I would say 90 percent of the toys were donated by runners,” said Barber, gesturing towards the piles of playthings surrounding the Santa statue and spilling over to the sidewalk. “A local credit union also helped out by organizing its own toy drive.”
Part community leader and unofficial mayor, Barber is as recognizable around Nyeland Acres as Santa himself. “I couldn’t say ‘no.”Mike brought me in and rents this costume for me year after year,” said Cran. “The boots are the only part of the costume that are mine.”
Leticia Montesinos and her three sons have been coming to the event since 2012. “I would like a PlayStation 4, but I’m probably not going to get that here today,” said Cruz, 9, Montesinos’ oldest. Younger brother Arturo, 7, also has electronics on his wish list – a Nintendo 3DS.
Electronics seems to be high on the list of most kids, including the five kids of Elizabeth Marquez. “They just like to get those things that move and make a lot of noise,” she said. One of her boys, Elias, 11, received a remote-controlled car, much to his, and her, delight.
Volunteers were in full force, too. Interim Oxnard College president Jim Limbaugh was present, along with his wife Trish. “We are here to support Mike,” he said. “His generosity has made it possible for 100 students to receive scholarships totaling $50,000 in 2014 alone.”
Laura Mullen, representing both sponsor DCH Auto Group and her Christian-based ministry group, was doing line control. “This event aligns with the vision of our ministry which is to elevate lives,” she said.
A raffle of bikes and other high-ticket toy items capped off the festivities. As families started walking back to their homes with their kids holding their early presents, even Santa was extra jolly six days to go before Christmas. “Yes, it’s hot in here,” said Cran of his red velvet suit. “But it’s worth it, seeing the smiles on these kids’ faces.”