It was not the Grinch, but burglars who stole Christmas.

Burglars broke into the Christmas for Everyone's Martinez warehouse early this year and stole about $200,000 worth of gifts, supplies and equipment intended for the 2013 celebration at the New Hope International Church in Concord.

"They were convicted, but that cannot bring everything back," said Mary Perez, founder of the nonprofit Christmas for Everyone.

She and CFE volunteers are determined to go ahead with the 28th annual Christmas party for about 3,000 local working poor families and seniors.

"This year is especially hard. We may not have everything this year, but we will make it work," 20-year CFE volunteer Steve Wallace noted. "In August were we asking ourselves, 'Can we even do this?'"

Burglars stole refrigerators, tables, chairs, freezers, warming trays, blankets, clothing and all the gifts that had been accumulated throughout the year.

"We usually need about 2,000 to 3,000 presents and we have something less than 100," Perez said. "When volunteers first arrived to help sort clothing, I had to tell them to come back because there is nothing to do."

Volunteer Jacque Kowalski-Jennings is supervising donations and volunteers as they arrive at the Olivera Road location in Concord, where the Christmas Day celebration will be held at the New Hope International Church.

"San Ramon Rotary just brought in a lot of clothing and I am waiting for more volunteers (to sort and fold)," she said. "We have one-tenth of what we usually have at this time of the year, but I am hopeful."

Gifts for all ages, toys and gently used children's clothing are especially in short supply, according to Wallace, who solicits donations and organizes the all-volunteer food preparation.

After Clayton City Councilman Howard Geller heard about the burglary, he and members of the Clayton Business and Community Association made a contribution to help replace some of the stolen equipment, and later donated an additional $4,000 for gifts.

"I will be bringing them a truckload of toys and donations that I have collected," Geller said. "I go there every Christmas morning to help. If you go one time, it will give you a new perspective on Christmas and what it is all about."

Families line up outside in the cold at three or four o'clock in the morning waiting to enter when the event opens. Volunteers offer hot chocolate and coffee, and entertainment chairwoman Maxine Chan is hoping to find a musical group to entertain those waiting.

Inside, there is more entertainment.

"We don't have enough yet," said Chan. "We need singers who join the carolers and other kinds of entertainment in the dining room such as trios, karaoke, magic, costumed characters to greet the children."

Entering guests are given a bag to select donated clothing from neatly sorted stacks and racks. Those things are stored while the guests are treated to a traditional Christmas dinner, music, Santa and Christmas carols, haircuts, manicures, face painting, games and gifts for children and adults.

"I like to help because it covers people's every need. They don't just go there, have a meal and leave," Chan explained. "They have a warm holiday experience."

Organizing the massive holiday meal has become a science, according to Wallace. "Right now, 80 turkeys are defrosting. They will go with 600 pounds of ham to make a fabulous dinner with all of the trimmings."

Wallace's team of volunteers collects supplies, prepares stuffing and delivers cooked turkeys and ham to the party. There is another kitchen team of 15 or 20 who cook, prepare and serve, and there are people to greet guests, help with gifts, provide transportation and cleanup.

"Shell Oil brought at least 30 bicycles, Pleasant Hill Rotary and the Seventh-day Adventist Church have helped with donations and volunteers, and a lot of our vendors give us great prices," he said.

"When we first started, we asked our friends and church members to cook turkeys at home," Wallace recalled. "You would cook one, and then another, go to bed, set the clock and get up to cook another and another."

"It was wonderful when about 10 years ago, Contra Costa County sheriffs in Richmond agreed to cook them," Wallace said.

Hams and other dishes are cooked in or warmed up in Devino's Pizza ovens in Pleasant Hill starting at about 1 a.m. Christmas Day.

In spite of challenging circumstances, volunteer morale is high.

"We have a lot of fun, we are a bunch of adults who never grew up," Wallace said.

"(As a CFE volunteer) I get to meet a lot of nice people," Kowalski-Jennings added.

Perhaps volunteer recruits are inspired by founder Perez' motivation to community service.

At a time in life when she was in need, someone offered to give her money. She refused, and was offered a loan. She refused again, explaining that she could not pay it back.

Only when the benefactor asked for repayment in the form of her commitment to help others in need, did Perez say she would accept the help. Her dedication to helping others has become a local tradition.

Contact Dana Guzzetti at dguzzetti10@gmail.com or call 925-202-9292.

CHRISTMAS DAY SPIRIT
WHAT: Christmas for Everyone, with free dinner, gifts, clothing, entertainment, services
WHEN: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Christmas Day, Wednesday, Dec. 25
WHERE: New Hope International Church, 2120 Olivera Court, Concord
INFORMATION: www.christmasforeveryone.com or call 925-228-2233
DONATIONS: Especially needed are toys and gifts for all ages, blankets for adults; monetary donations
VOLUNTEERS: Needed Christmas Day, morning and/or afternoon in a variety of areas: greeters, servers, hair stylists, performers, costumed characters, and to set up and clean up; also needed Dec. 27, for cleanup. Performance volunteers contact Maxine Chan at 925-969-9693