“Most recipients are recommended by someone, and it’s so rewarding to help the kids,” says Francine Whitten, Operation Santa coordinator. “Last year a man came in with his 3-year-old daughter. When I gave him his bag of gifts, he started to cry he was so overcome, so I went back, got him another bag filled with toys and said, ‘Have a very merry Christmas.’”
“Most recipients live in Gulfport, but some live in surrounding areas or just outside the Gulfport city limits,” says Operation Santa assistant Cindy Hayes.
Gifts are sorted by gender and age group, and each family’s gifts are then put in a black garbage bag so the kids can’t see the presents, along with a roll of wrapping paper.
“The first year, we wrapped all the gifts before distributing them,” says Whitten, “but we would see parents unwrapping the gifts in their cars to see what was inside so we decided to leave them unwrapped from then on.”
Donations of toys were received through mid-December to allow time for sorting and distributing the gifts. Monetary donations were also accepted to use for buying more gifts as needed.
The program received donations from “area organizations and events such as the Boca Ciega Yacht Club boat parade, the Gulfport Neighbors booth at Holiday Hoopla, Stetson Law School, the Women’s Club, Holy Name church and AIDS Service Association of Pinellas (ASAP),” says Whitten.
Gifts were distributed to families at the Gulfport Police Department the week before Christmas.
“Three or four bags of extra toys are also given to police officers or firefighters in case they run across families who need gifts,” says Whitten.
Operation Santa will make the holidays much brighter for families and their children this year, say organizers and supporters.
“It’s fun to do this for the kids. We’ve been doing it for 25 years, and no one who needs help has ever been turned down,” says Whitten.