Buying power: When selling is giving in the holiday season

Neighbors of Inner City Development shop recently at the West Side center’s annual toy sale. Ben Olivo/ Folo Media

By 11:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday, things were quiet for the most part on Chihuahua Street, a narrow road on the West Side of modest single-family homes enclosed in waist-high fences. The road is so narrow it becomes a single lane when people park along the curbs. On this day, it was that crowded. Most of the cars and vans were stopping at a lime-green complex at the corner of Trinity Street. From the sidewalk, it was hard to tell why.

But if you walked up the short driveway or peered through the fence, you would notice a surprisingly chaotic scene unfolding.

Inside, through the heavy red metal door, “Jingle Bell Rock” played on the speakers. Seemingly every toy imaginable had taken over Inner City Development’s multipurpose room. The few dozen volunteers — a ragtag team of students, churchgoers and neighbors — tirelessly organized the toys by type, combed them for price tags, and applied a different colored sticker dot to each item, indicating its new and reduced price.

Hot Wheels, 25 cents. PonyLand set, 50 cents. Mini air hockey table, $2.50.

It was the day before ICD’s Christmas Toy Sale, an annual event where thousands of dollars worth of toys that have been donated are marked down to a tenth of their price, and then sold to the community. Although the sale would be on Sunday, all the toys arrived on Saturday in trucks and vans from all over San Antonio.

Right when it appeared as though they were finishing their task of organizing the toys, a new delivery, four trash bags full, was plopped down in the middle of the room. A few volunteers quickly disassembled them, pulled out the toy trucks and Barbie dolls, and the entire process began again.

Toys are arranged on a recent Saturday at Inner City Development the day before its neighborhood Christmas sale. Ben Olivo/ Folo Media

Taking a break from QR coding Thomas the Tank Engine sets, 65-year-old volunteer Zet Baer described what attracts her to volunteer here every year: “Seeing this, seeing the community all come together from really diverse areas . . . They just do amazing work here.”

Since its founding in 1968, ICD has strived to do things differently, to “lift the dignity of the individual.” Across San Antonio this time of year, a myriad charities give out Christmas toys gratis, but Inner City Development’s holiday spirit expresses a different philosophy. Longtime volunteer Molly Ramirez said that ICD’s unique approach is based on “people getting to choose presents for their kids.”

“And be happy,” Manuela Ibarra, one of ICD’s volunteer chefs, chimed in.

In a similar vein, SA Heals, an East Side nonprofit, will hold its own “Affordable Christmas” toy sale on Dec. 23. The nonprofit will be accepting donations 1-6 p.m. today (Dec. 18) at 1212 N. Gevers St.

The emphasis on choice is paramount. Instead of giving away toys to the community, the sale gives those in ICD’s neighborhood a chance to choose and pay for the gifts they want to give their children, without straining their already cash-strapped wallets.

Every year, the donations come from various organizations and individuals. This year, some of the key contributors include the Keystone School and Christ Episcopal Church. In a ZIP code (78207) where 46 percent of adults are not working and the median household income is less than half the city average, the sale, which is now approaching its 40th year, has become a staple of the holiday season in this pocket of the West Side. It typically draws between 150-200 families.

Marisela Diaz, 36, has been helping out with the event for more than a decade. Amid the crowded room of volunteers, she stopped pricing baby dolls just long enough to notice that “it’s been getting bigger and bigger; I don’t remember this many people here last year.”

By midday Saturday, most of the volunteers had gone home, and the toy piles in the middle of the room had evolved into orderly tables, some with sports balls, some with board games, some with cars, and some with dolls.

This year’s inventory was particularly unique, as KENS 5 donated 22 new bicycles, all of which would be sold for either $5 or $10.

“Oh my God! Wait till they see the bicycles, they’re going to be happy. We’ve never had brand new bicycles!” exclaimed Ramirez as Saturday was winding down.

Manuela Ibarra (from left), Tania Toney and Hilda Mendoza have been volunteering at Inner City Development for 20 years, three years and five years, respectively. Ben Olivo/ Folo Media

The next morning, the toys would find their new homes. Although gates didn’t open until 1 p.m. and the shopping order was determined at random, shoppers began lining up around 9 a.m. anyway. They gathered on the sidewalk with lawn chairs and winter coats. Neighboring houses set up garage sales, and sold tacos and drinks to the waiting crowd.

The week before, Rod Radle, ICD’s co-director, walked to each of their homes and delivered two tickets. By lunchtime, the line outside had morphed into a neighborhood function, with small talk and friendly exchanges among neighbors passing the time, eager to play the role of Santa for their kids.

Inside ICD, the kitchen was pulsating with life, as Ibarra and Tania Toney, the chef for the summer program, orchestrated the creation of 300 bean and cheese, chorizo and egg, and potato and egg tacos. The food was for the shoppers. At $1 per taco, and with her secret salsa recipe already made, Ibarra was confident that she would sell out, like she does every year.

“Patti always taught me, take what you want, but always remember there’s somebody coming behind you. So don’t overfill your plate. Now I teach my kids that.” — Samantha Estrada

Outside, as the neighbors began to grow restless with anticipation, the final organizational details were being hammered out by Radle and his volunteer team. Inside the chain-linked fence that protects the perimeter of the development, dozens of plastic chairs were lined up in spaces between long bright-yellow picnic tables and under a large carport-like awning. In front of all this was a taco stand, where four women, all in their 50s or 60s, were filling coolers with soda and smashing bags of ice on the concrete.

One of the women’s daughters soon appeared and offered an understanding of the event’s significance. Samantha Estrada, 33, grew up with Inner City Development, and doesn’t hesitate to praise the organization.

“I’ve been here forever. I even have a scar from that brown slide in the back,” she says, pointing to the large play structure in the yard, currently desolate but usually overrun with kids during the warmer months.

For Estrada, her mother, and the other ladies — three of which are all comadres — lending a hand at the toy sale has always been a no-brainer.

“Patti always taught me, take what you want, but always remember there’s somebody coming behind you,” says Estrada. “So don’t overfill your plate. Now I teach my kids that.”

“Patti” is Patti Radle, Rod’s wife, ICD’s other co-director, former councilwoman and pillar of the West Side. This year was the first time in almost 40 years that Patti Radle was forced to miss the sale, as she was in Virginia visiting family. Nonetheless, as Estrada reminded me, “People say Patti, but it’s not really Patti. It’s the volunteers. We get used to each other and we start bonding like family.”

And often, volunteers become actual family, as many marriages, love stories, and families begin at Inner City Development.

More than 20 bikes were auctioned off at ICD’s toy sale on a recent Saturday. Ben Olivo/ Folo Media

With the tacos on sale, the chairs lined up, and the toys pressed up against the windowsill, Radle turned on his megaphone and belted, “Who’s ready to do some shopping?”

Rejuvenated with excitement, the line outside trickled inside the gates, transforming into a line for Ibarra’s tacos and coffee. By a little after 1:30 p.m., everyone was inside the gates, registered and eager to shop.

Lined along the wall adjacent to the taco stand was this year’s hottest commodity: the bikes. Anyone who wanted to could enter the raffle for a bicycle, and many did. Except for Josie Ybarra, a 60-year-old shopper who opted out of the raffle.

“There are special bicycles that are real nice,” he said, “but my kids are too little to use them, so I want someone else to get them.”

A sense of camaraderie was abundant as Radle announced the winners of the raffle to laughs and applause for each winner. Most people knew one another and have been coming to the event for years. So when someone else wins, as Ybarra put it, “It’s a good thing, because we help each other. Some people can’t afford it.”

Richard Montez, ICD’s president of the Board of Directors, explains the rules to shoppers. Ben Olivo/ Folo Media

Shortly after 2 p.m., Radle called the first 22 shoppers to line up on the sidewalk outside the chain-linked gates. Among them was Ana Maria Torres, a 33-year-old mother of six sporting a black sweater and blue jeans. Torres was chatty and cheery with those around her.

“I’ve came here since I was little,” Torres said. “My mom would always send me here.”

Her mother died this year. Nonetheless, Torres was grateful to be back and able to shop for her children. She had already won a bicycle at the raffle, so the day was off to a great start.

Once Radle gave the go-ahead, the 22 shoppers walked single-file around the corner and entered the building through a side door. They found themselves in a cramped pink room with stockings overhead and a Christmas tree squeezed into the corner. Torres sat in the front row, facing a table where volunteers would verify whether or not she lived in the neighborhood.

After an overview of the rules and some light jokes from Richard Montez, ICD’s president of the Board of Directors, Torres handed her ID to a volunteer in exchange for a slip of paper to mark her purchases. She then entered another room where volunteers lined up with clipboards, ready to guide her and the others through the different sections of toys.

Weaving through a tiny corridor, Torres came upon a room stuffed to the brim with stuffed animals. There, she opted for a “big old teddy bear.” When combined with the bicycle she’d already won, the teddy bear made Torres very content about the day’s finds, and the rest of the sale went by so quickly that she was the first person to finish shopping.

As she stuffed the teddy bear, bicycle, and bag filled to the brim into the back of her truck, she did a little math and realized that she spent $33 on 13 toys.

“We had a rough year,” she said. “My mom passed away, so it’s been hard. But at least we got something and Inner City got to help us with it, you know. I mean, at least each kid will be getting something for Christmas.”

Such is the magic of ICD’s toy sale. Inscribed into the mission of Inner City Development, Patti Radle says, is “to lift the dignity of the individual.”

So, as Torres hopped into her truck and fired up the engine, it was the next group of shoppers’ turn, Torres’ neighbors, as they lined up on the sidewalk, eager to head in and kick off the holiday season with a little dignity and maybe a giant teddy bear.

lucas@folomedia.org

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