It may have been 30 years ago, but some Christmas memories last a lifetime.
When Amanda Chirico was a little girl, someone in the community helped her family by bringing donations to their home during the holiday season. Her mom was a proud single parent with five young daughters.
“I didn’t know that we were poor as kids. I had no clue. Mom was a very proud person,” said Chirico. “She asked, ‘who did this? Who did this?’ And the ladies who were walking in boxes of food and presents said, ‘just people who wanted you to have a good Christmas.’ And that was the first time I’d ever seen my mom cry.”
With the memory still alive in Chirico’s heart after many years, she decided it was time to give back.
“I thought if I remember that 30 years later, I need to do that for someone else,” she said.
And Santa’s Helpers was born. Five years ago, Chirico put out her request on Facebook hoping her friends; co-workers and neighbours would help her give one local family a better Christmas.
“I was quite overwhelmed by the response,” she said.
In Santa’s Helpers first year, they helped four families, not one. It’s grown ever since.
This year, 32 families are on the receiving end of generosity funneled through a Facebook page organized and maintained by Chirico. More than 75 people participated.
Santa’s Helpers depends on the help of local schools that identify families who may not qualify for social assistance. These folks are already flagged for help by other agencies, said Chirico.
“We specifically wanted to find those families who were trying to make it, but maybe falling through the cracks,” she said. “It’s incredible how many families there are.”
Schools who participated gave out ages and genders of attending students, but that’s it. Maintaining anonymity is important for Chirico.
Then, the call goes out and people are more than happy to support Santa’s Helpers thanking Chirico for organizing the effort. Along with positive feelings, gifts start piling up at her home and Annie’s Boutique.
“There is just an incredible support system of friends and acquaintances and people that just want to do it. Most of the time they say to me ‘I want to do this I just don’t know where to start.’”
This year Santa’s Helpers will distribute 85 presents to children and $2,300 in grocery gift cards to families.
The week before Christmas, presents were delivered to the schools where staff made arrangements for drop-off or pick-up.
“The only thing I want them to say if anyone asks is that this was from a group that wanted families to have a bit of a better Christmas this year,” she said, using the words she heard as a child.
For Chirico, playing Santa has grown into an experience requiring patience and understanding alongside the tremendous gratitude she feels.
“It’s overwhelming to be honest,” she said. “When I first wanted to do this it was simple — there were just a few families.”
The challenge of coordinating more and more donors with children means making many lists and checking them more than once. Santa has her elves as helpers, but ultimately it’s Chirico’s project. Driven to keep this going into its fifth year, she said it’s all about the heartwarming feeling she gets.
“Someone knocked on my door last night at 9 o’clock with a gift. I don’t even know the person. They said this is for Santa’s Helpers. I thanked them and put it in the living room and I cried,” she said. “I have all these wrapped presents in my living room and they’re just so lovely. And all these presents came from the hearts of strangers.”
Chirico has always been surrounded by love at Christmas time. She came from a big family and now has one of her own. Her children are 17, 15, 11 and nine-years-old.
“It’s chaotic, but lovely,” she said.
Chirico’s kids support her as she devotes much of her Christmas energy to Santa’s Helpers.
“They all know that our house is overflowing with gifts for a very short amount of time and not one of them belongs to them,” she said.
The charitable mom hopes her children always remember the giving spirit and donate to a cause like it when they’re grown.