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Behind-the-scenes Santas deliver the goods

by Virginia Mullery

Forget about Christmas Eve and chimneys and elves. These Santas are on the job in a warehouse, some two weeks before the big day, stuffing, not stockings, but bags full of toys, gifts and food for some of Chicagoland's neediest families. They are members of Santa for the Very Poor (SVP), a loosely organized, low-profile group that concentrates on doing one thing and doing it very well.

There are 55 members of the "board of directors," which simply means that each director must donate money; solicit donations from friends, acquaintances and corporate donors; and participate in the annual Christmas distribution. Directors are divided into 11 teams, with each team procuring names of needy families from religious organizations or social services agencies. Ten teams each take on 80 families, and one team is responsible for 50 families. Individual family members are identified by age and sex so that gifts are appropriate. Distribution ranges from the inner city to as far north as Zion in Lake County to the southwest suburbs.

Like John Power of Chicago, president of the board and member since 1983, most members are asked to join by a friend. They range in age from 20s to 70s and run the gamut from bankers to ad men to homemakers. Power, 60, works for a brokerage firm in the city. "The young people are attracting new interest through Facebook," Power said.

Others have been around for years, like Christian Erzinger, 41, of Lake Bluff, who began when he was 10 years old, helping his dad, Bob Erzinger of Winnetka, one of the co-founders.

It all started in 1956, when Al Fellinger was doing a door-to-door survey on the use of electrical appliances. A woman who opened the door of a basement apartment cried when asked about her refrigerator. It didn't matter if it worked or not, she said, it was empty. She had no money for food. Fellinger was so moved by her plight that he bought her a big bag of groceries. He told his friend, Bob Erzinger, the story and the rest is history. (Fellinger, now 82 years old, is still involved with SVP but, due to ill health was not available to speak with us.)

From a $20 beginning, the amount donated has grown to over $150,000 a year. But the structure of the not-for-profit organization is basically the same. They operate in teams, they concentrate on Christmas and every penny raised goes to the charity. There are no operating expenses, Power said.

Although shopping for gifts begins early in September, two weeks before Christmas teams and a host of other volunteers meet in a large warehouse, where some 850 bags supplied by Crate and Barrel await them. Bags are numbered and filled with gifts for the designated families. "It's a fun, family gathering," Bob Erzinger, said. His grandchildren now participate, making this a thirdgeneration effort. Power's wife, Barbara, heads up a team and his adult children participate as well.

Sometimes other groups show up to help, such as the Destiny Dyamonds, a group of formerly abused women from the southwest suburbs, themselves once helped, who look for ways to give back to the community. "They arrived at 6:30 a.m. and stayed all day," Power said.

Grocery orders are placed with Strack and Van Til grocery store in Chicago and paid for by SVP. On an appointed day, before the store opens for business, SVP members arrive to find their orders bagged and in carts awaiting them. Everything for a holiday feast is included but, recipients also receive gift certificates for Jewel stores so they can add their own personal touches to their festive dinner. Food and gifts are delivered to the respective agencies that supplied the names. In the early days, SVP members made the deliveries to the families themselves. "Because of privacy issues and because it got too difficult, we now leave it to the agency," Power said.

One year, while waiting to pick up a rental truck, Power said, he inadvertently overheard a conversation about a woman living with her two children in a car. As luck would have it, his team only had 79 on their list that year and, therefore, were able to help her have a happier Christmas. Ordinarily, they leave the screening up to the agencies. "We get stories on our Web site that would break your heart," he added, "but are not in a position to check them out." Among the agencies that benefit from SVP largesse is Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. Last year, 166 food bags and 80 fleece blankets were distributed among their elderly, often lonely, clients. "Because many of SVP's recipients are children, we like to say, for us, they are Santa to the big kids," said Simone Mitchell-Peterson, executive director of Little Brothers. "We are able to divide the big bags of food into smaller bags to accommodate people living alone, thus making them and the Jewel gift cards last all year long. With those gift cards we are able to meet the nutritional needs of many older people, often purchasing perishable items which cannot be purchased in bulk. Their help is invaluable." Little Brothers distributes 100 bags of food every month to clients.

Power, explaining his long involvement with SVP, said, "I have had few things in my life that have given me this much satisfaction–to be able to directly help people who need help that much."

For more information on Santa for the Very Poor, go to their Web site: santavp.org.

Virginia Mullery is a freelance writer living in Gurnee, IL.


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