ATWATER — An ordinary day of holiday shopping with the kids turned into an opportunity to give back for 23-year-old Atwater resident Jamie Pineda.
Passing the Merced Mall's Toys for Tots barrel with a stack of toys inside, Pineda felt a yank on her hand.
Her son, Issaiah Pineda, 6, stopped and pointed to the toys with a tiny finger.
"Mommy, what are those toys for?" He asked.
"Yeah! Can we get one?" his brother Seth, 5, and cousin Jessyka Payne, 6, chimed in.
Pineda explained to the three kids, "Some kids won't get Christmas presents this year. Those toys are for them."
"But Mommy, Santa Claus visits everyone's house," a small, disappointed voice responded.
The disappointment in their faces was soon replaced with determination.
"They asked if they can donate toys," Pineda said. "So we thought, 'What can we do to help them learn how to raise the money for donations?' It was their idea, but I wanted them to feel like they're the ones accomplishing it."
Over the next few weeks, the two brothers, Issaiah and Seth, joined their three cousins, Kalayah, 3, Kobi, 4, and Jessyka, 6, to begin their journey to raise money for the donated toys.
They went to work washing dishes, taking out the trash, making the bed, folding towels and picking up their toys.
Each task paid them a few dollars, with the biggest payout coming from washing dishes.
Then an idea emerged that would take their fund raising to the next level.
"We decided to go Christmas caroling," Pineda said, adding that her mother took the kids caroling years ago.
"We got nervous at first," Issaiah said with a shy smile. "But just our first time."
For about 10 nights, joined by their parents and grandmother, the five children braved the freezing cold and surprised Atwater residents with a knock at the door.
"At first, people were surprised -- then they'd sing along," said Pineda.
The children sang a medley of three holiday favorites, "Jingle Bells," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
Surprise and happiness
Some residents couldn't believe they were being serenaded by the kids with jingle bells and red Santa hats.
"We had one woman say, 'I was sitting here bored and lonely, and you made my night,' " Pineda said. "Another said, 'I haven't seen Christmas carolers in 17 years,' and one child asked their parent if they can go caroling too, after the door closed."
The five kids collected money for the toy donations inside a stocking -- but that's not all they got.
Many residents donated money after showering the kids with hugs, kisses, toys and candy canes.
In about three weeks, the kids earned $326 and purchased 67 toys, which they picked out themselves.
"We told them to pick out toys that they'd like," Pineda said. "It's going to be hard giving it away, but I told them to think about the kids who wake up on Christmas morning and don't have anything."
On Thursday, the family met at the Atwater Community Center to donate the toys to the Atwater Police Department's Kops for Kids program.
"We're very grateful for the people providing these gifts -- it's a huge help for the needy individuals in the area," said Lt. Sam Joseph, adding that they've received close to 7,000 toys. "We're thankful Chief Pietro has kept the program going for the last 20 years, and we can't forget those in need -- especially this time of year."
True holiday spirit
For moms Tiffany Payne, 24, and Jamie Pineda, teaching the kids the true meaning of Christmas is what mattered the most.
"I wanted them to learn to be thankful for what they have," Payne said. "Christmas is not just about getting presents, it's about giving."
Pineda added, "It's better to give than to receive -- and to always be thankful for what you have because there's always someone less fortunate than you."
Glancing at the toys covering the floor of their Atwater home on Wednesday afternoon, Jessyka and Issaiah explained what they learned throughout this process.
"Giving," Issaiah said, before getting interrupted by his cousin. "And make people really happy. Jesus is proud because we give."
"Those are little kids who don't have presents," Jessyka said. "The kids are going to be very happy when they see the presents."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.