A mother takes photos of her kids at the inaugural "Brunch with Santa" event at YMCA La Central on Dec. 9, 2023. Photo by: Eileen Street.

Pancakes, eggs, hot chocolate, toys, and photos with Santa were some of the free offerings at Saturday’s inaugural “Brunch with Santa” event at YMCA La Central. But the most important gifts given were hundreds of smiles.

Well over 400 Bronx parents and children attended the holiday event, the first ever at the new YMCA. At check-in, guests received one green ticket, which allowed them to choose a gift. 

“It’s great that they are doing things like this for the community,” said Johanna Lora. “They have a chance to see Santa Claus; they get a gift, and just being in the community together, I think it’s great,” she said of her children.

Lora said she found out about the free holiday event because her 10-year-old son attended four weeks of summer camp at YMCA La Central, which is sandwiched between Mott Haven and Melrose at 434 Westchester Ave. 

So she attended with her son and husband and was impressed with how the event, held in the center’s large basketball gym, turned out compared to other community events she has attended previously. 

“Usually you are outside, you know, in the cold. You get your gift, and you just go straight home,”said Lora, 43, who lives in the Bronx’s Foxhurst neighborhood. “I think this is great that they are giving food, and treats, and you get to sit inside, and see the YMCA. So it’s pretty good!”

The event was free and open to anyone, regardless of where they live or if they are YMCA members, but guests were asked to pre-register. YMCA employees reported that 439 guests had pre-registered, but walk-ins were also allowed, boosting the total number of attendees.

Set out on multiple folding tables in the gym were presents for all ages, such as make-up kits, Barbie dolls, skateboards, footballs, LEGO sets, basketballs, and board games. 

Nicholas, Lora’s son, scored a ​​LEGO Art Harry Potter Hogwarts Crests building set. 

“I think it’s really cool, and this is like my first 18+ [years old] LEGO so I’m really happy because I want to start watching Harry Potter,” said Nicholas. That LEGO set retails for over $100 on Amazon. 

No one left empty-handed or hungry. A buffet served breakfast and brunch items, such as mini pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage links, vegan patties, chicken poppers, french toast sticks, and bagels with cream cheese or butter.

YMCA La Central opened in October 2022, too soon to host a holiday party last year. However, Senior Program Director Nadia Arroyo, who has worked at several NYC YMCA locations over the past 20 years, said it was important to host a holiday event this year. 

“The YMCA is here for the community, and we are here to bridge the gap and make healthy choices, and not only that, but a safe haven,” Arroyo said. “If you don’t have a place to go for the holidays, at least you can come here and be with us.”

The plan is to make “Brunch with Santa” an annual event, Arroyo told the Mott Haven Herald.

“Yes! God willing, if we can keep it up and partner up. We partner up to make everything happen. It takes a village,” she said, adding that the highlight of the day for her was seeing everyone participate in all of the activities.

“So giving them a little bit of everything to do. Not just a, ‘Hey, here’s Santa. That’s it!,” Arroyo said. “We did introduce them to what a Zumba class is like, what a capoeira class is like. Nobody ever really hears about capoeira, so that’s new. So bringing a new light, a new feeling.”

Every guest at the “Brunch with Santa” was given one green ticket they could exchange for one gift. Photo by: Eileen Street.

It was a community event in the larger sense. While the YMCA provided the venue and its employees cooked the food and offered free classes, the Bronx  borough president’s office funded the DJ and a 360 photo booth. Health insurance company Fidelis Care donated the food and Metro United Plus offered giveaways and sponsored a face painting booth. Small businesses, from candle to jewelry makers, also offered giveaways and had a small holiday market. 

The Angellyh Yambo Foundation organized the toy drive, giving out purchased gifts and donated Toys for Tots gifts. The foundation focuses on anti-gun violence community work in honor of 16-year-old Angellyh Yambo, who was fatally shot in the Melrose neighborhood in 2022. Yambo’s immediate family, mom, dad, and three brothers, along with extended family, from aunts and uncles to cousins, helped decorate and hand out the hundreds of gifts – so many that toys were still left over after the event. 

Lora said her family already plans to go to next year’s “Brunch with Santa.” 

“I think at these times, especially with everything that’s gone on, you know after Covid, I think it’s time that everyone just gets together,” she said. “For the kids especially, at this time in the holidays. Sometimes kids don’t have gifts, and I think this is just an excellent thing.”

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