Story by Betsy Crowfoot with photos by Art Remnet, Orange County Chapter
Hundreds of youngsters left the annual Red Cross Children’s Safety Festival in Santa Ana last month with more than just holiday presents. During the three-and-a-half-hour event, each received a gift even more valuable than the games, dolls, trucks and toys they took home: they got the gift of safety.
“They come here for a fun time, for the games, activities, and toys,” said Beth Ratcliff, the Red Cross Regional Youth Volunteer Coordinator who organized the December 9 field day. “But we also try to sneak in valuable education on safety.
“Water safety, earthquake safety, bicycle, electrical, railroad, fire, water – you name it!” The festival does double-duty, Ratcliff explained; offering a playful family holiday celebration, while hundreds of Red Cross and other volunteers combine to teach safety and emergency preparedness, in a fun and entertaining way.
Nearly 500 children from more than 30 area schools, ranging from infants to 12-year-olds, attended. “We reach out to specific schools and ask them to select 10 to 15 families, who have the most need,” said Ratcliff. In addition, there were children from Thomas House Family Shelter, and Access California Services, an organization that supports refugee families.
All told, with parents and other family members involved, a whopping 757 guests attended, lining up at the Red Cross Santa Ana headquarters before the gates opened. At 10 a.m. they entered, whooping and excited, eager to fill out their emergency kit checklists – a scavenger hunt of sorts: collecting items at various booths and crossing them off their lists.
The parking lot had been transformed into a carnival-like atmosphere, with games, activities and displays. Booths were manned by volunteers, including 200 students from two dozen local high school Red Cross Clubs.
The OC School of the Arts string quartet played carols, while their classmates helped children write letters to Santa. Garden Grove High School students handed out more than 600 stockings, stuffed with goodies, that had been donated by Circle K. Cheerful youngsters scurried under black crepe paper ‘smoke’ in a fire safety activity, while others climbed under tables to learn earthquake safety.
Nearby, a smiling young woman demonstrated CPR, while other teens put on a Muppet puppet show on safety. There were activities and entertainment for all ages: and the young guests weren’t the only ones having fun.
“This is my third year volunteering for the Red Cross!” exclaimed Mission Viejo student Giselle Hafen, who was helping oversee the event, and grinning from ear to ear. Currently a High School junior, Hafen joined the Red Cross Club in her freshman year.
“Being involved in the Red Cross, I have seen how much of an impact you can make,
not only with people around you, but people world-wide,” she said. “The Red Cross is a global organization and it’s awesome that someone who’s just a teenager like me is able to help other people all the way across the world. To me that is just incredible. It really inspired me to want to help people even more.”
Other organizations and agencies were present too, providing valuable training, information and donations.
At a Think Together table, four boys from a shelter in Fountain Valley sifted through a table of free books. Their mother, pushing her daughter in a stroller, thanked the volunteers, saying she treasured the chance for her children to have some holiday fun.
Think Together’s Joes Candelas said it is the third time the group has been represented at the Festival, and added “I love this event,” citing the opportunity to promote reading and education to those with less resources.
Across the lot, children spun the wheel at the Orange County Health Care booth, prompting a question on bicycle and pedestrian safety. OCHC’s Maria Minaglia said, “It’s such a fun day, and we really value the chance to aid low-income and under-served families.” OCHC fitted and gave away 120 helmets to young bike, scooter, and skateboard riders, while stressing the importance of wearing helmets.
And then, there were the toys.
In the months prior to the event, the Red Cross had gathered children’s gifts, which overflowed from bins in the parking lot.
“This is the second happiest place on earth!” laughed Greg Georgantas, who, with a dozen other Disney VoluntEARS, doled out the presents. “There are the yearly events and galas we love to volunteer at; but from my perspective, the real fruit of our labor is handing a kid a toy! That’s amazing!”
As he spoke, a little girl squealed with excitement as she grabbed a troll doll from a volunteer, and ran off to show it off to her big brothers.
“Everyone is having a great time, and the parents really appreciate it,” said Ratcliff, still energized despite managing such a large event. “There are an awful lot of people here, but it is going really well.”
“We couldn’t make this happen without a really good team,” she added. “I’ve had some people congratulate me, for making it work. But no, it involves a lot of people. We have over 300 volunteers here today – including the 200 high school students. And they are just incredible, with their time, money, efforts, energy! It’s really awesome.”
“Plus, there are really amazing community groups who have sent their volunteers, information and donations. We’re so grateful for the generosity of everyone involved, for making this such a happy and successful event.”
The Children’s Safety Festival is a free, invitation-only holiday party for families in vulnerable communities. All children present receive a toy, in addition to being educated on the importance of disaster preparedness.