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South Bay resident's annual cross-border toy drive spreads holiday cheer to kids in need

Ruben Torres, founder and executive director of Love Thy Neighbor at the first toy drive in 2010.
Courtesy of Love Thy Neighbor
Ruben Torres, founder and executive director of Love Thy Neighbor at the first toy drive in 2010.

When South Bay resident Ruben Torres was growing up, he would go to friends’ houses to play with their toys. Today, Torres spends the holidays organizing an annual toy drive for children in need living in the South Bay and in Tijuana.

The 14-year toy drive is organized through the Love Thy Neighbor nonprofit founded by Torres where he also serves as the executive director. The project is one of several he is involved with.

This year the annual Love Thy Neighbor Toy Drive is happening in collaboration with the Commercial Street Artisan Market from 11 - 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 10.

It all started by chance in 2010 when Torres was in Tijuana filming a documentary.

After wrapping up the film, the crew asked an interviewee if there was anything he needed. He asked for a basketball because there were none in the neighborhood.

Torres got him the basketball and launched his first toy drive.

That first year, on the U.S. side, they collected donations outside of Nittis Tattoo Parlor in Chula Vista. In Tijuana, they returned to the same neighborhood with the basketball and other donated items.

Toy drive details

Anyone interested in supporting the toy drive is welcome to bring one or more unwrapped toys on Sunday, Dec. 10 from 11-5 p.m. at the Soap Factory, 2995 Commercial St., San Diego, CA 92113. You can learn more about how to get involved with Love Thy Neighbor on their website. Financial donations can also be made on their website.

KPBS South Bay Engagement Producer Marielena Castellanos spoke with Torres about how the Love Thy Neighbor Toy Drive first started and its impact in the community.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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What motivated you to keep doing the toy drive?

Torres: I know what it's like to have nothing. That's why I give what I can. I was born in Tijuana, and when I go down there, I see myself in these kids. And you know, my mom brought me over, when I was like two, or three years old to the U.S.

Back in 2010, I think I was at a point in my life I was going through a divorce at the time, and I was going through depression. And I was just really dealing with a lot of stuff. And I was just asking God to change my focus. It really helped me kind of pull out of that dark place.

And so right away, after we finished the first toy drive, you know, it was like, well, what do we do next? Start planning for another one.

How do you distribute the toys?

Torres: We try to give some of the groups here in San Diego toys first, and then we go to Tijuana. We take everything directly to these families or these communities. In the past we did the whole circuit, you know, we would go to Tijuana, we would go to the shelters and the orphanages.

Now, we're just taking it directly to the neighborhoods. And so, you know it goes from our hands directly to those families; we deliver them ourselves.

Before we go down to Tijuana, we do these feeding of family events with the San Ysidro School District. We try to provide for at least 50 families, about 250 people. We’ll also partner with a local restaurant and the San Diego Police Department. We will donate the food, we feed the families and put out a bunch of toys. The kids will come, and they leave with a full stomach and a toy.

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Aracely Villa and Ruben Torres of Love Thy Neighbor pose for a photo during a toy drive in 2016.
Courtesy of Love Thy Neighbor
Aracely Villa and Ruben Torres of Love Thy Neighbor pose for a photo during a toy drive in 2016.

What communities are you focused on?

Torres: You know, everybody's kind of got their niche of what they do and how they help and where they go to help. Ours happens to be in South San Diego, and San Ysidro is always an emphasis for us as well. Last year we did a toy drive with the Border View Family YMCA in the South Bay. We want to continue to make an impact in our own community. And because I was born in Tijuana, and I love Tijuana, we go there, we serve there as well. We've been trying to kind of do a binational effort for a long time.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Torres: Donations for teens are a challenge, earbuds, headphones, art supplies, sports stuff such as soccer balls, footballs, bicycles, clothes such as shoes, socks, hoodies, all this stuff always helps.

Volunteers and the budget are also challenges. We always encourage anybody that gives to come with us to distribute the toys because that's when you see the smiles on the kids’ faces. Some of them come up and they'll give you a hug. Seeing that kid’s smile at the end of the year saying, “gracias (thank you),” as they come to get their toy, I think everyone needs to experience that.

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