Santee Santas bring holiday joy to children and seniors

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When there are so many organizations, non-profits, or helping people busy doing selfless acts during the holidays that it is hard to keep track of all of them, and that is a good thing.

One such organization the Santee Santas—giving to the community for 61 years. The administration has changed hands since its inception in the early 1950s, it has earned non-profit status, created a Board of Directors, and amasses a remarkable volunteer base, but the mission has stayed the same. Help the people who need it.

When there are so many organizations, non-profits, or helping people busy doing selfless acts during the holidays that it is hard to keep track of all of them, and that is a good thing.

One such organization the Santee Santas—giving to the community for 61 years. The administration has changed hands since its inception in the early 1950s, it has earned non-profit status, created a Board of Directors, and amasses a remarkable volunteer base, but the mission has stayed the same. Help the people who need it.

Minimum financial requirements must be met to receive help from the Santee Santas, but before the Christmas holiday, volunteers, who in many cases have inventoried, sorted and packed food and gifts, deliver to families and senior citizens who would otherwise go without on Christmas. And these volunteers, from Santee Santas President Sam Modica on down, do this in the spirit of good will. No judgment, and no expectation of anything in return.

“That first year [1953], there were five families in the program and deliveries were made by fire trucks. Santee Santas, originally founded by the Santee School District and they ran the program until about 1985, at which time they felt it should be privately run so they turned it over a group of volunteers that wanted to run it and in 1990 we got our non profit status,” said Modica. “It has been administered by volunteers since about 1980. Some of them volunteer to wrap toys, some of them volunteer to come in and help with the food, and a lot of them come back to do the deliveries for us.”

The delivery volunteers Modica referred to were lined up and checked in an empty building on Mission Gorge Road next to BevMo a few days before Christmas, waiting for the boxes they would load in their own cars, on their own time, to bring cheer to others. In the back of the mostly empty building, shiny new bikes and other wheeled toys were adorned with extra-large, colorful ribbons, destined to brighten lives.

When Santee Santas began, the Santee School District identified five families that were in need. And now, “On the average, we provide to about 250 families,” Modica said.

Applicants apply in person. The requirements and important dates are listed on the Santee Santas website. Information about Santee Santas is dispersed broadly so no one is missed.

“We have the banner up across the street on Mission Gorge, and we send notices home with all the children in the Santee School District about when we’re taking applications,” Modica said.

A recent, unexpected trend has emerged—senior citizens have been applying and receiving help from Santee Santas.

“In the last three years, we have done a lot of senior outreach and we’ve got more and more seniors that live in mobile home parks or senior apartment complexes that are low income, and now applying. Every year, we see more and more seniors coming into the program because it gets around by word of mouth,” which enables Modica, his staff and volunteers to bring joy to even more people.

“The seniors get food. The families get food and toys for the children. We give children ten years and under toys, children eleven and older get gift cards. We provide a turkey and dairy for the holiday meal and enough staple items to last about two weeks,” Modica said, watching the organized operation move at a hastened pace around him. Santee Santas has had time to become that well-oiled machine that can be proud of its work. 

Such success starts early in the season, when people are winding down from Halloween.

“The schools in Santee have food drives for us starting the second week of November. We end the drive after the first week in December. Most of our donations come from about 75 boxes that go out to different businesses in the city. We put out other boxes to collect food. Our donors are pretty much the whole city,” Modica said. “We rely strictly on donations. We do a business mailer every year in October that goes out to all the businesses in the city that have a business license soliciting donations, and on our website we have a Paypal button for donations.”

The fire trucks of the Santee Santas’ early days are still emblematically involved. They help with deliveries, loading and unloading all of the donated items to the delivery volunteers.

Modica had a tired but simultaneously exhilarated air about him on the morning of deliveries. “It’s been a long morning already,” Modica.

The months of hard work were tangible. Relief and real happiness were setting in. The turkeys and the shiny new bikes going out the door, and everyone knew the real magic was about to begin.

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