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Real-Life Holiday Heroes

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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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