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With a career as a VP of construction for an agency that builds housing for the homeless, an equally demanding side job as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown, Levittown, Long Island, plus a wife and two teenage daughters, you'd think Cliff Archer had his hands full. And you'd be right—yet every November he gears up to play Santa to families who would otherwise have nothing to show for the holiday season but disappointment.
He's definitely not your typical Saint Nick. There's not a "ho-ho-ho" to be had in his lexicon. His sleigh is a run-of-the-mill minivan. And he skips the red hat in favor of a Yankee baseball cap. Lack of trappings aside, this dad is the real deal.
He's been answering kids' pleas every year since 1988, when he was inspired by a newspaper article about the United States Postal Service's "Letters to Santa" program. Each year hundreds of thousands of appeals pour into the cavernous main post office in Manhattan, and Cliff doesn't shy away from even the most heartbreaking.
"My parents were a cop and a nurse, and we had very little money when I was growing up," he says, with characteristic directness. "They were poor but honest, and they instilled in me the importance of always trying to help someone less fortunate. When I saw that article, I realized that anything I could do to make the holidays less bleak for someone having a hard time was worthwhile."
So for the past 19 years Cliff has responded to anywhere from 6 to 10 "Dear Santa" letters a year. He's got a system down pat. A few days after Thanksgiving he picks up the letters. The next four weeks are a whirlwind of rounding up gifts. "Then comes what we refer to as 'D-Day,' when Joey, Mildred, and I make our big run."
That would be Joey Lindicy and Mildred Lizardi, Cliff's coworkers at the New York State Housing Finance Agency—his passion for "Project Santa" prompted them to join the cause. Thanks to donations from other colleagues and friends, by mid-December Cliff's office is crammed with toys and clothes; last year he raised $3,000 to fill in the blanks on the various wish lists. "Some kids ask for a computer, but in the end they're always thrilled with simple things like board games," he says. "In all this time I've never seen a child unhappy with his gifts."
As Christmas approaches, Cliff takes the donations home and adds them to the sizable stash of toys amassed by his wife, Joanne, who buys them on sale throughout the year. She and their two teenage daughters, Valerie, 16, and Danielle, 13, help sort, label, and pack everything. "We make sure that every child gets several toys and some clothes," he says. "And we always give the parents an envelope with at least $100 cash."
Cliff learned early on that it was best to hand over the gifts in person. "Once I left a package for a kid with the building superintendent because the family wasn't home, and I later found out that the super sold it," he says. Now he aims for letters that include phone numbers, so Mildred—who also speaks Spanish—can call and talk to a parent about whether there are other kids living in the household who need gifts too, and then coordinate the drop-off. Often parents can't believe someone would answer their children's letters. "Mildred is excellent at persuading them," Cliff says. "She's so warm and sweet—a mom of three herself."
Shortly before Christmas, Cliff and Joey map out the most efficient route and load everything up for delivery. At times he finds himself wishing for a simple means of entry, like a chimney. "Now and then we get a family on the 20th floor of a building in the projects with a broken elevator," he says. "You should see the three of us chugging up the stairs with all the stuff." The bags always include groceries for a complete Christmas dinner—a ham or a turkey plus all the trimmings—bought with Cliff's own money. "When I started doing this I noticed there usually wasn't much food in these apartments," he says.
After nearly two decades the best part of being Santa is the same as it was in the beginning: seeing the looks on the kids' faces. "When Mildred calls she specifically asks the parents to please keep the fact that we're coming a surprise," he says. "Then they see this 6-foot-5 man walk in with tons of bundles. The kids can't believe it's all for them. The mothers often have tears streaming down their faces, and they give us their blessings. That's when I know that all the work and running around is absolutely worth it."
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One visit to a children's hospital, where Carol Green saw premature infants in incubators lying on plastic sheets, was enough to prompt her to use her sewing experience to make the nursery less sterile. The 49-year-old mother of six in Houston, Missouri, asked a fabric store to donate two bolts of baby friendly flannelette—and overnight she turned them into bumper pads, tiny T-shirts, and receiving blankets. Thus Newborns in Need was born, and within a month Carol had a group of local women stitching cuddly items.
The latest initiative of the group—now 11,000 members strong, with chapters in 26 states—is the "Baby's First Christmas" program. Volunteers make Christmas stockings and fill them with newborn basics for distribution through hospitals and social-service organizations. "We figure that for every $1 donation we get, we can give a baby a real boost," says Carol.
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Christmas 1994 was Jennifer Nelson's first as an assistant at Chicago's Interfaith House, a center for homeless adults who have just been discharged from the hospital. When she gave a simple gift to a resident, the woman started weeping. "She told me that no one had ever given her a Christmas present before," recalls this gracious 45-year-old mother of six. "Right then and there I vowed to help make Interfaith House a warm, giving environment."
Over the years Jennifer ascended the ranks to executive director of Interfaith House, picking up both a bachelor's and a master's degree along the way. The position involves fundraising, providing spiritual and emotional support—and playing Santa.
"Many of our residents have no family or have burned bridges with loved ones, which makes Christmas particularly depressing for them," says Jennifer. "They need to feel like someone cares."
Holiday prep starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when staff, the board of directors, volunteers, and residents blanket all three floors with trees and decorations. The week before Christmas there's a daylong party with food and a talent show put on by residents. Last year a group performed a particularly moving skit. "They dramatized their first days at the center, when they were angry and treated the staff badly," she recalls. "Then they showed us how they became cooperative and hopeful when they realized we care. The skit let us know how much Interfaith House means to them."
At around 4 p.m., Jennifer makes her entrance dressed as Santa Claus. The 40 staff members are her elves who pass out gifts to all 64 residents, calling each person by name to receive hats and gloves, journals, pajamas, headphones. In the evening the board of directors joins the festivities.
On Christmas Day Jennifer's family, as well as relatives of some of the residents, come for dinner. Instead of loading up trays cafeteria-style, as usual, the residents sit at the tables, says Jennifer—"It is our pleasure to serve them."
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When smoke damage from a June 2003 fire at a neighboring store ruined most of the merchandise at Ruth Ann Young's Christmas decorations shop in Kirkland, Washington, the 56-year-old mother of three was devastated—there wouldn't be enough time to restock for the holidays. But she quickly vowed to find another way to share in the spirit of the season.
Opportunity presented itself via an e-mail from a high school friend then serving in Iraq. "I decided to do something for our troops," says Ruth Ann. She dubbed her idea "Operation Iraq," a grassroots effort to send soldiers gift boxes filled with periodicals, toiletries, snacks, and pictures drawn by school children. Her initial goal was to collect enough donated money and merchandise to fill 1,000 boxes. After local news media picked up the story she had supplies for 6,700.
Since then the project has grown exponentially. "Every fall I worry about making it happen again," says Ruth Ann. "But a lot of people believe in this."
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Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.