In Laguna, Ersatz Santas Abound

Santa delivered gifts to preschoolers last year at the Boys and Girls Club, part of grass-roots efforts throughout the community to meet needs of the working poor.

Tis the season for list-making, but with a twist. Rather than gift lists, some local residents and organizations are compiling lists of families who can use help striking items off their own lists.

From volunteer groups at the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach, the Laguna Relief and Resource Center, and the school district to long-standing local philanthropists Sande St. John and Marsha Bode, locals are intervening for the neediest families in our community.

“Laguna is so generous,” said Bode, who with St. John years ago began a tradition of holding an annual holiday party for low-income families living or working in Laguna.

One of their expected recipients this year is a mother who recently had surgery for breast cancer and kept working at her hotel job even as she went through chemotherapy in order to maintain her health insurance. She has improved and is still employed, but her husband recently suffered a stroke and had to quit working. Even though their oldest son, who just graduated from high school, now adds his income to the pot, the family struggles to make ends meet. The holiday party planned for 2 p.m. this Sunday, Dec. 11, at No Square Theater, will give them an opportunity to “shop” for necessities and toys for the younger kids gratis.

Scores flock to the party every year. Bode and St. John collect gently used clean clothing, household goods, linens and toys from the community right up to the last minute the day before. Children visit with Santa while their parents peruse the donations. Donated items can be dropped off between 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10, and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call Marsha Bode at 949-244-2010. Volunteers to help set up and “sell” things are welcome.

Bode and St. John don’t stop there, but also organize an adopt-a-family program. They maintain a list of Laguna Beach families in need, 30 long this year, and then find a donor to serve as Santa and supply the wish lists for each child in the family.

Thanks to board member Susan Thomas, the Laguna Relief and Resource Center will go beyond providing food to 800 to 1,000 low-income families each month to secure donations for their own list of families for adoption.

They have experienced “a remarkable outpouring” from local businesses offering to adopt families, said Andy Siegenfeld, chairman of the center.

In a reflection of economic stress, the demographic of adopted families has shifted this season and includes more previously middle class families whose bread winners are unemployed, Bode said. A similar trend is evident among those coming to the Resource Center for groceries, Siegenfeld said.

Meanwhile, Boys and Girls Club board member Paula Hornbuckle recruited 100 Women for Kids, with the help of the BGs, an auxiliary volunteer group, to adopt the neediest of the club members and their siblings.

The first year they helped 40 children, 70 kids last year and this year, they’ve matched donors with about 62 children, Hornbuckle said. Donors are given each child’s shoe size and clothing sizes, as well as items from their wish list, and they try to accommodate at least one thing from each category, she said.

“It’s wonderful the way the community responds,” said Terry Anne Barman, director of the club’s early childhood and family services and this week serving as Santa’s helper coordinating donations from different groups.

Barman said other groups serve as Santas to older club members. Hobie Sports will be making wishes come true for 26 kids and the Laguna Parents Club will meet the gift-giving needs of 15 families this year.

Barman herself has been busy rounding up additional gifts to stuff Santa’s sack when he arrives next Wednesday to visit preschoolers.

Lest any family fall through the cracks, Javier Diaz, the school district’s community liaison, compiles his own list with the help of teachers. He checks it against Barman’s list for overlaps before he posts a list of kids for faculty and staff to adopt anonymously.

In past years, school employees stepped in for four or five families at each school. This year, because of the efforts of the Boys and Girls Club, Diaz expects just one family per school will need an assist.

Diaz collects the gifts and usually distributes them to the families himself, and, though some donors and families prefer to remain anonymous, often the family will want to reciprocate in some way – sometimes coming to the school to cook a special meal for their benefactors. “We’ve been doing it for a couple of years and it’s great,” said Diaz.

“It’s really very cool,” agreed Barman.


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