Spreading Holiday Cheer

Sharing Among Neighbors Toy Appeal provides gifts to low-income families

By Craig Reed

Sharing Among Neighbors Toy Appeal volunteer Trish Burns prepares a stuffed animal table for the program’s annual gift event. For the past 28 years, community volunteers have come together to support low-income families at Christmastime.

The SANTA program brings smiles and happiness to both kids and parents during the Christmas season each year. SANTA is all about Sharing Among Neighbors Toy Appeal. In its 28th year, the program provides gifts December 10 to low-income families with children from birth to age 18. Parents or guardians from the Crow, Elmira, Noti, and Veneta areas must register in advance to shop for 2 gifts for each child in the Veneta Elementary School multipurpose room.

The SANTA effort led by numerous volunteers and donors has provided Christmas gifts for 300 to 400 children in about 275 families each of the past three years. In some prior years, the number of children receiving gifts has been higher, reaching 600 one year.

“I love Christmas, and it just breaks my heart to think kids aren’t getting anything for Christmas,” says Alice Nichols, a Veneta resident and past president of the SANTA board. “That’s the sole reason I do this. I’m a parent of three, and I know how tough it can be in the beginning for families. I just want to help these kids out and their parents.”

When Alice’s children were in school, she saw the need to help other kids enjoy Christmas. Tricia Schauer, a Veneta resident and the board’s secretary, has seen the need when volunteering at the school her daughter attends.

Kathy Wilson and Chanda Diekotta organizing the books table at the event.

“A lot of kids at school are on the free and reduced lunch program,” Tricia says. “They don’t have the money for food. Knowing some of the kids and their families’ personal history, I know people are struggling for a variety of reasons. There’s the added stress at Christmastime of buying gifts and going more in debt or having the kids go without.

“This program brings the community together and fills a need that exists,” she adds.

Judy Van Damme, the SANTA historian, says it’s all for the children.

“I believe every child should have a happy Christmas,” she says. “In hard times, people don’t have the money so they have to choose between food or medicine or gifts. This program helps them out.”

Penny Mayben and Monica Crawford at the pre-teens and teens table. Gifts are available for kids 0 to 18.

Inez Booker and Sally Spaulding saw the need 27 years ago when they were helping fill and distribute food baskets at Christmastime. The two women heard numerous inquiries about toys and gifts so they began collecting used items, cleaning and repairing them, and including them with the food baskets.

As the SANTA program became more recognized and respected, financial donations gradually increased, fundraisers were held and grants were applied for and received, allowing the increasing number of volunteers to shop for new gifts. Lane Electric Cooperative has helped with donations.

This year, the program has $24,000 to spend on gifts. People may also drop off new items in some area stores.

“That’s a nice figure, but prices are going up so it’s needed,” says Monica Crawford, president of the SANTA board, of this year’s budget.

Local organizations also support SANTA. Sanipac donated and assembled bicycles.

“The donations show the communities care about the kids, that kids are important to their community,” says Tricia. “They want to help the kids in any way they can.’

Volunteers shop for specific ages and toys and then on distribution day, tables are set up for infants and toddlers, preteens, teens, books, baby dolls, Barbie and fashion dolls and action figures, games and sporting goods.

The SANTA volunteers include the Free Souls Motorcycle Club of the Eugene area and some service club members. The motorcycle members hold a toy ride/drive each year, make a financial donation and volunteer on distribution day, taking on the role of elves.

Volunteers Samantha Yliz and her son, Brandon.

“We have volunteers who have been doing this for many years,” says Monica, who has been a SANTA helper for 25 years. “We are a core group who look forward to this every year. There’s a lot involved, doing the shopping, setting up the gym, helping people shop, but it’s worth it.”

On distribution day, only parents or guardians are allowed to shop for two gifts for each child. Prior to the COVID pandemic, volunteers gift wrapped the items, but now adults are given wrapping paper for each gift. They are also given an appropriate book and stuffed animal, depending on their child’s age.

“Our system allows people to come, look at the toys and choose what they want for their kids,” says Monica. “There’s always lots of laughter and such a great atmosphere as people come in to shop. To me, helping out these people in our communities is the greatest gift we can give.”