Happy tears dripped down Maria Vazquez' face as she watched the children clutch their gifts.

For the seventh year Maria, a Chino resident, and her dedicated band of holiday helpers, were hosting Christmas in the Classroom at Fontana's Juniper Elementary School.

Christmas in the Classroom sprang from Maria's heart when she learned that so many local children weren't going to have a very merry Christmas.

"My daughter Melissa was a second-grade teacher here and she asked her students, `how many of you do not celebrate Christmas?' She was shocked when almost every hand went up," Maria said.

Melissa was asking out of religious respect, but soon learned that there were other reasons children do not celebrate the holidays.

"They were telling her, `we don't have any money. My mom or my dad doesn't have a job.' It just broke her heart," Maria said. "She called me right away and said, `Mom, can you help?"'

Maria called friends and family and together they bought gifts and candy canes for all 20 children. She even got Santa to go to the classroom and give the gifts to the children. However, joy turned into sadness when Maria and Santa left Melissa's classroom.

"Children were standing near the classroom behind a fence when they saw Santa," Maria said. "All of a sudden they started climbing the fence and shouting, `Santa, Santa, where are you going? You forgot me? Come back.' I started to cry. This was supposed to be such a joyous occasion and instead it was so sad and I said `never again. I won't help a school unless I can help the whole school."'

And that's what she did. From helping those first 20 students Maria, her family, friends, business contacts and those she has met randomly by chance, have given toys to more than 3,200 children in four Title 1 elementary schools: Juniper and Date in Fontana, San Antonio in Pomona and Troth in Mira Loma.

According to the California Department of Education's website, for a school to be Title I, a minimum of 40 percent of students in the school or residing in the attendance area served by the school, are from low-income families.

"For many of our students this will be the only Christmas gift they receive," said Adele Thomas, Juniper principal. "Each year we see students who won't open their gift or open it very carefully so they can wrap it back up and open it again on Christmas. It really tugs at your heart."

Thomas has been at Juniper since Christmas in the Classroom began. Its students have come to look forward to the annual event.

"Right after we get back from the Thanksgiving holiday the kids start asking, `When's Santa coming?"' she smiles.

In the past Maria's dreams were to take on more and more schools until every child got a Christmas gift, however, she will be out of work in January as All-Coast Lumber, Inc., her employer, announced it was closing its doors, another victim of a sluggish economy.

"I will keep Christmas in the Classroom going," said Maria, whose program is not affiliated with any charity, organization or group. "I just might need some help, but I can't stop, it would disappoint the children."

All-Coast management and staff have helped Maria with monetary donations as well as gift storage, wrapping and transportation to each school.

"They have been so wonderful," Maria said. "There are so many angels in the world helping me to help the children. What a blessing."

Other donors include Driftwood Dairy, HR Insurance Services, Tony's Spunky Steer, Southern California Industries, Mattel Toys and Ganahl Lumber.

Maria's brothers Eddie and Jose Herrera hosted a fundraiser at the Montebello Elks Lodge and raised $2,000. Margo Dodson, who's been helping Maria for the past six years, had a garage sale and recycle event and collected $1,000.

"What Maria and all these volunteers do here is truly amazing," said Kent Bond, CEO of All Coast. "This is a tremendous program and Maria is a remarkable person. She's always telling me how there are so many angels in the world, but really, she's the angel."

Information about Christmas in the Classroom: christmasintheclassroom1@gmail.com


Reach Diana via email, or call her at 909-483-9381.