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A line of families and parents crowded the sidewalks along Pine and El Camino streets Thursday night, waiting for their turn to be called into the Veterans’ Memorial Community Center in northern Santa Maria.

Inside the auditorium, a flurry of volunteers — mainly middle and high school students — sorted hundreds of bags of fresh produce, nonperishable items and toys for children of all ages. Carolers from a nearby church began warming up as a Santa Claus impersonator sat on a chair in the corner, waiting for children to be called in.

For the last 83 months, roughly 250 parents and families from the neighborhood surrounding El Camino Junior High School have attended monthly “THRIVE Healthy School Pantry,” a free food distribution and nutrition education event for community members. Hosted in partnership with the Santa Maria-Bonita School District and the Santa Barbara County Foodbank, school administrators say the year-round event is a key component of targeted outreach efforts designed to improve the quality of life for the surrounding community.

“Our idea with the pantry is to make sure families are not only getting food but connecting with different programs and resources,” said Karin Dominguez, who oversees the THRIVE program for the school district. “It's been really exciting to bring these programs to the families' houses and communities where they live.”

Thursday’s event — the last planned distribution for 2018 — felt closer to a celebration than a handout, something Dominguez said eliminates the stigma of seeking assistance and helps families feel more comfortable. Set to a soundtrack of regional Mexican music and traditional Christmas songs, children ran about as the parents received everything from groceries to gloves.

“It's a real uplifting event,” said Mark Muller, the district’s assistant superintendent of instructional services. “We always have a real good crowd.”

According to data collected by the school district, almost all of the families who receive assistance from the Pantry speak Spanish, Mixtec or a language other than English. Slightly more than a quarter are temporarily doubled up (living in a single-family home with another family), and though rare, families occasionally report living in a motel or being temporarily unsheltered.

“One of the things we try to make happen here is meet the families’ basic needs and make them feel like they have a stronger social connection,” Dominguez said. “We want them to know that there are people who can help them when they are in need.”

While meeting immediate needs is a big aspect of the event, Dominguez said information sessions hosted by THRIVE’s partners help connect families to nutrition education, exercise and supplemental assistance programs.

“A majority of the Latino community doesn't know these resources exist,” said Lourdes Vega, a Dignity Health employee who provides outreach to the community’s Spanish-speaking population. “We want to inform the Latino community to recognize that these resources are here and available to them.”

Muller said that in the seven years since starting THRIVE, elementary schools in the program’s service area have reported higher average scores on the Kindergarten Student Entrance Profile. Children whose parents participate in the program 12 or more times score 8-percent higher on the test than students who did not attend.

“There are so many things here that would help children be more ready for school,” Dominguez said. “That’s the most important thing, helping the children succeed.”

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.