A volunteer asks a boy what toy he would like as he faces a mountain of free playthings. Photo by Chris Stone

Vanessa Salazar of Barrio Logan had her arms full — literally — with a giant stuffed bear and a smaller Winnie the Pooh doll. They were gifts her kids picked out from a sea of toys.

“Yeah, it means a lot,” said the 31-year-old mother who arrived with family members at 5 a.m. Saturday for the 9 a.m. opening of the 23rd annual Toys for Joy event.

“Bringing them over to get a toy, especially with the budget that we have, is like — I thank God and then the church and everybody who helped out,” Salazar said at Lincoln High School in Lincoln Park — one of four sites where community members could pick up toys, get haircuts, select some clothes and take home food for the holidays.

Just as thrilled was New York native Erica Dumas, who has lived in San Diego for five years.

She was one of 4,000 volunteers helping more than 20,000 kids and their families with the early Christmas.

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“It’s neat to give back to my community in a way that I can be more Christlike,” Dumas said of her first year in the Santa’s helper role. “I feel full of joy. It makes me feel warm inside to know that I am helping and they’re having a wonderful time.”

As usual, that’s music to the ears of Miles McPherson, Rock Church senior pastor and founder of Toys for Joy.

The former San Diego Chargers player (1982-1985) called Saturday one of his favorite days — despite being “draining.”

“I just try to talk to every single person,” McPherson said. “It does not get old. I’m trying to think of new ways to make it even better and bigger all the time because over a half-million people are food-insecure in San Diego.”

Not only does the event feed the visitors — some of whom waited from 10 p.m. Friday – they got to take groceries home.

“We just want to make this day last as long as possible,” said the 59-year-old pastor.

“The reason we started the church was to serve the city,” he said. “It wasn’t to have church services. Like when people go to a football game, they don’t go to see the huddle, they go to see the play.”

He called Sundays “our huddle.” But the play is what they do during the week.

“That’s what we’re all about,” he said. “If we didn’t do things like this, our ministry would be a lot less fulfilling to me.”

Other Toy for Joy sites were Cajon Valley Middle School in El Cajon, Guajome Park Academy in Vista and Castle Park High School in Chula Vista. The event takes nearly a year to organize.

This year’s event was helped by “platinum sponsors” including San Diego Food Bank, Children’s Primary Dental, Metro PCS, Thank You Heroes, San Diego Guardians Basketball Team, HundredX, Rock Thrift Store, Nothing Bundt Cakes, Out of the Ordinary Group Adventures, RF Exposure and Vessel.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer stopped by the packed and noisy Lincoln High along with San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit, who with other officers helped hand out gifts.

“I love being here,” Faulconer said. “I see the smiles on the kids’ faces and the families. Can’t say enough about the Rock Church and really helping to bring our city together.”

Salazar, the stuffed-bear-toting mom, says she’s been to the event about seven years.

Her kids and other younger relatives didn’t know what they wanted coming in.

In fact, as they surveyed the basketball gym overflowing with playthings, they said: “We don’t know what to get. There’s too many toys!” Salazar said.

“I get happy to see their faces … Once they come in here and they get the toy they want, (they squeal): ‘Mom, I got this!’”

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