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A day for children
By: JOHN CRAWFORD Review Correspondent, Staff Writer
The Neighborhood Santa Program hosted 35 needy children at the Applebee’s restaurant in town for breakfast and to meet with Santa. All the children received toys and other gifts donated by local civic groups, businesses and individuals. About 20 other children will receive gifts that will be delivered to their families.
The program originated as an outreach project of the Ephrata Police department and was run by Tom and Paula Shumaker.
"This actually started as the Cops for Tots program," explained Ephrata Mayor Ralph Mowen. "The police department did it for several years and then it got large enough that the two officers who were doing it had a family and it became too much for them."
Joel Fenstermacher, the manager at Applebee’s, recalls hearing about Cops for Tots just after arriving in town.
"Back before we opened the restaurant, Steve Annibali was the police chief and he was one of the first people I met when we came to town," said Fenstermacher. "He told me about this Christmas program they did. At the time, it was getting too big. They were having challenges finding the time to go to all the kids’ houses to deliver the Christmas presents. I said, ‘What if we had a place where the kids could come together and Santa could come there?’ We’ll do a breakfast on a Saturday morning and have Santa come in and deliver the gifts to the kids here. It’s how we got started with it."
Kim Goshert and Abby Bayley, the current contacts for the project, heard about Cops for Tots when Fenstermacher shared his concerns about the program folding.
Goshert remembers, "Joel caught wind of it possibly falling apart so the three of us met and thought, ‘we’ll try it and see what happens.’"
Bayley and Goshert have run the project about five years. Each year, they begin by getting Ephrata Area Social Services to identify children they can help.
"Social Services provides the name of parents who have an issue and need some assistance," said Mowen.
The project looks for kids "newborn through 12, which is what (Social Services) handles anyway," explained Goshert. "We take the ones that have real wants and needs."
From there, they enlist the help of local businesses and civic groups to do the shopping and collecting rather than donate money. Among others, Dove Westgate Church and Pepperidge Farms do much of the gift buying.
"Because of the economy, we had to evolve," said Goshert. "It is really hard to ask businesses for money so that slowed down. We had to figure another way to get these kids gifts. It is easier for me to say, ‘can you shop for (them)?’ instead of, ‘can you give money to us?’ I give them sizes and they just shop and have everything delivered (to us)."
Bayley noted, "With the community assisting in shopping, that has really taken the load off of us."
The Leo Club, the youth arm of the Lions Club, was among the groups taking the load off the organizers. Katarina Sandell, 12 years old, helped the club gather items and came on Saturday to help distribute them.
"We were collecting hats, gloves and scarves from the local community," said Sandell. "We started in November and stopped about Dec. 6."
By e-mail, the club’s advisor Craig Merkey noted, "We had 163 hats, scarves and gloves donated this year!"
The payoff came on Saturday when Santa arrived at the restaurant to deliver the gifts. Amidst the cries of, "There he is!" and "Hi Santa," he walked around to greet the children and then sat down to hand out the presents. Many of them went up to him with a little hesitation but with a big smile.
"These children, they don’t have a lot," said Santa, who preferred to keep his traveling alias anonymous. "What I appreciate from them is that everyone said ‘thank you,’ even the smallest ones that were scared to death said ‘thank you.’ There is genuine thankfulness from the parents. Just the satisfaction of them saying ‘thank you’ or seeing a young one smile when they get a truck and it lights up, you can’t put a price tag on your time when you get that from the children."
The program’s mission blends practical needs with the children’s wish lists. As Santa explained, "We make sure that they get coats and they get hats, mittens and warm socks. We want to make sure that their needs are taken care of before you do toys, but we also make sure that kids have plenty of toys. Kids need toys."
Amy Gehman of Ephrata and the mother of 2-year-old Onnika seemed to genuinely marvel and appreciate Neighborhood Santa’s ability to satisfy both concerns while she goes through a time of underemployment.
"This Elmo doll was perfect for her," she said. "That’s her favorite show. She watches Elmo every morning. They gave her gift cards to Redner’s so now we can get groceries. (It helps us) financially. Money that I would have to take out of her gift spending to put towards groceries, I can now get groceries and give her a better Christmas."
Gehman said that when Santa handed Elmo to Onnika, "Her face lit up and she just looked all around like, ‘Is this mine, am I supposed to keep this?’ She was very happy."
As the morning’s activities wound down, Santa’s helper Holly Dawson sat down at a booth after her work was done.
"It’s hard to be an elf," she said with a smile when asked how she felt. "I was just helping the kids enjoy Christmas, which is something they might not get to do if wasn’t for us." More CHILDREN, page A26