Santa’s Elves

Santa’s Elves

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Santa’s Elves

The best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your own arm.

Swedish Proverb

When my husband and I first met, I was an anti-Christmas Scrooge. I associated the season with negative baggage from my past. Brian, on the other hand, had a great Christmas family; everyone decorated and the holidays were a special time. When we fell in love, it was time to leave my inner Scrooge behind.

Each Christmas Brian strung outdoor lights on every inch of the house, and we decorated a tree that reached our thirteen-foot ceilings. Faithfully, we claimed a couple of tags from the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree or bought toys for the Toys for Tots campaign. I would pick a girl, and Brian would pick a boy. All very impersonal and “safe.”

One year an eight-year-old named Latisha had written “piano,” “piano,” “piano” for her three choices on her Angel card. When I saw that, I felt the Scrooge within shift. Each year since, I imagined the look on Latisha’s face when she unwrapped an electronic keyboard (sorry, Mom) on Christmas morning. She’d be on her way to college by now, and I wonder if she really learned how to play that piano.

In one of those dot.com boom years, we were feeling flush with an unexpected windfall of a few extra dollars at Christmastime. Not having children of our own, we decided to splurge and make the holidays really special for some kids who wouldn’t otherwise have a Christmas. It was time to close that “safe” distance. I wanted to feel more connected to the kids whose name we picked. Ideally, we wanted to “adopt” a family who knew the real meaning behind Christmas. Although we didn’t want to send a message that Christmas was only about things, we understood that children expect Santa to visit on Christmas. As luck would have it, we got just what we asked for. (Santa was already at work.)

We live in an affluent county in Florida. It’s a generous community, rich (no pun intended) with philanthropic individuals and organizations. When my friend Anne discovered the Youth Activity Center (YAC), an after school and summer program serving children from low-income families, she knew that people within the community could make a difference for these financially strapped families. When she called and asked if I could marshal my coworkers for a mission, I found many willing volunteers.

First, we got a list of the names, genders, sizes, and ages of the over one hundred children YAC served, as well as any brothers and sisters in the home. Next, we decided that every child would get a complete outfit of new clothes, shoes, socks, and at least one toy. We made up our own angel tree and strategically located cards around our building for employees to take. For example, one person would buy shoes for Miguel, another would buy him pants and a shirt, while another employee would purchase the toy. Within a week, boxes and bags began to accumulate, so I set about organizing and logging who got what to be sure every child got something.

A week before our “wrap and tag marathon,” I went over the list of items received, grabbed my Christmas-loving husband, and headed for the stores to take care of what we still needed. Our first hurdle was figuring out how the sizes and the ages worked together. One card said a ten-year-old boy wore a “YS,” another ten-year-old specified a “boy’s large,” yet another twelve-year-old boy needed a size “13 husky.” Would a men’s small work? How can a size 13 shoe fit an eight-year-old?

Flustered, we decided to tackle the fun stuff first—toys! Armed with the List, we walked through the doors of Toys “R” Us. Now this was Santa’s workshop! My toy-deprived childhood was in for a healing, while Brian’s challenge was buying for the kids—not himself.

After exercising our elf muscles and filling two carts full of toys, we loaded up the car and hit Payless Shoes. A very helpful salesperson explained the mystery of children’s shoes sizes and produced a handy sizing chart, which confirmed that Brian and I weren’t the only befuddled ones. We quickly made our selections: well-made athletic shoes that the kids would surely outgrow before the shoes wore out. My eyes kept drifting to cute pairs of pink-glittered sneakers with light-up heels, but I knew they were too impractical.

Inspired by our mission, the manager of the store gave us a hefty discount on our purchases; I scurried back down the aisle and grabbed a couple pairs of pink-glittered sneakers.

At Target our strategy was simple; we’d start with the easy stuff (we thought) in the baby/infant aisles and then find our rhythm.

Leave it to marketing geniuses to turn a tiny, little bum into dozens of choices and sizes for diapers, or the need to feed into a plethora of formulas and supplements. As I headed for the cute little onesies, I spotted Brian, a man who could navigate thousands of permutations of screws and bolts in the Home Depot, staring mystified at shelves full of baby stuff. Finally, a compassionate mom with a baby in her cart took pity on Brian and helped him sort through the list of babies in the YAC families. In no time they figured out what the mothers of those infants would appreciate and need.

Our nemeses still waited, all dolled up and merchandised for the holidays—the boys, and girls, apparel departments. I skirted the perimeter, picking up inexpensive watches, jewelry, and purses that I knew any ten- to fifteen-year-old would love. Next, I chose disposable cameras for the sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds—hey, I was kicking it—until Brian came down the aisle pushing a cart full of diapers and formula, wanting to know how I was doing with this age/size thing.

Finally, we devised a plan to defeat the bumbleheads who didn’t make it easy for children-challenged shoppers—we’d buy a few of every size and take the pile back to the office and let some children-savvy moms figure out which child should get what size and style. We grabbed more carts and started pillaging racks and shelves. We thought it strange no one seemed to notice us. When we arrived at the checkout with four carts overflowing with merchandise, we discovered why we hadn’t attracted any attention with our multiple carts: we weren’t alone. An aisle or two over, a man was swiping his credit card for six shopping carts full of clothes and toys. Beyond that a man who looked like a coach was emptying two carts full of workout pants and shirts. Elf fever was epidemic!

Over the next few days, I sorted through the YAC families list. I mixed and matched to be sure that every child had multiple gifts from Santa. We added gift certificates from the supermarket and some books for the parents. The Saturday before the party at YAC, we had our wrap and tag marathon at work. We wrapped hundreds of boxes and tagged them with the name of each recipient. All the gifts were bagged according to family and loaded into large gaylord shipping containers. A pallet jack maneuvered them into the truck that would be Santa’s sleigh the following Wednesday.

At the appointed time, the big blue truck from JBD Delivery, followed by cars of my coworkers, pulled up to the small trailer that served as an office, classroom, and meeting area for YAC. Jimmy rolled up the back door of his truck, and we began to uncrate and organize all the families’ goodies. We put on our elf hats, our reindeer ears, and popped some holiday music into the CD player. We strung decorations and put out food and beverages. We had asked the program staff to tell the adults to come to the office before picking up their children. We had also asked that the kids be kept busy on the other side of the park so they didn’t see what was going on and thereby ruin their Christmas morning surprise.

As each adult arrived at the office, we explained that the presents were gifts from a caring community, then loaded the bags into their trunks and vans. One grandmother who spoke no English, sat on a chair surrounded by bags bearing the names of the six grandchildren she cared for. One of our bilingual employees knelt beside her and asked if there was anything wrong. Tears welled up in her eyes. In Spanish she told him, “Before I came here, I had nothing . . . nothing . . . to give to my babies, but now . . . all of this! God bless you!”

A young woman arrived, very pregnant and very stressed, probably thinking that she had been asked to stop by the office because of some problem. When she walked in and was given her family’s gift bags, she dropped onto a chair and cried. She had been upset at having to chose between serving a Christmas dinner or giving one gift to each of her children. This situation was turning what should have been a joyous holiday season into a stressful time and was making this mom sick.

We felt good knowing we had done something worthwhile as we bid one another good-bye after the last child had been picked up and the last bags had been delivered. Some of us headed to our homes, others left to finish shopping for family and friends who maybe had all they needed, but not all we wanted them to have.

That was the Christmas I banished the inner Scrooge for good. Turns out I didn’t need expensive therapy, and I didn’t need to spend hours pouring my heart out in a support group. All I had to do to enjoy the true spirit of Christmas and have a festive holiday was to be one of Santa’s elves.

I’m a ranking member of the Elf Corps today. To the extent we can afford it, Brian and I continue the tradition of giving each year, knowing that even small gestures make a world of difference in a time of need.

Theresa Peluso

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