YAKIMA, Wash. — All around them, the Lares children watched as others opened presents they had just received at the annual Christmas party at Southeast Yakima Community Center. But the seven Lares kids left theirs wrapped, waiting until Christmas.

“It’s a tradition where I come from in Mexico that we open presents on Christmas Day,” said Ruben Lares, a Sunnyside resident who attended the 22nd annual party with his wife, Maria, and seven children.

The Christmas party drew families that lined up around the cinder-block building and down Seventh Street, taking a number as they waited their turn for pictures with Santa and to receive a gift for each child and enjoy a plate of barbecue beef. Volunteers ushered them through 25 at a time, served the meal and bused tables.

Several hundred families came, each with several children to easily push attendance over 2,000.

“It gets bigger every year,” said Rosie Lee, a program assistant for the Community Center.

One woman waited in line for seven hours, her children joining her after school.

Gifts — skateboards, Play-Doh, Legos — wrapped according to age and gender, were the big draw for kids. In fact, they may be the only gifts some of the children see, organizers said.

“This is the these kids’ Christmas,” said Eric Lee, Rosie’s former husband and the center’s after-school program supervisor.

But the party also fosters a sense of community in one of Yakima’s poorer sections of town, served by the center for more than 40 years.

The city-owned facility, which started as the center of Yakima’s black population, has been reinvented over the years as a gathering place for Latino families, reflecting changes in neighborhood demographics.

In 2008, city officials considered selling it to an early-learning program backed by Bill and Melinda Gates, but overwhelming public support changed their mind.

Eric Lee, who has been working at the center for more than 20 years, said many kids receiving gifts decades ago now are bringing their own children through the line.

But some families were new to the event.

Sisters Nora Romero, 27, and Jackie de Jesus, 23, grew up in the neighborhood and now live just three blocks away from the center.

De Jesus recalls visiting the center years ago to use the computers, check out books and attend events.

But Friday was her first Christmas party. She and Romero each brought three children of their own.

“It’s actually nice to know they still do stuff around here,” de Jesus said.

• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or rcourtney@yakimaherald.com.