The giving spirit of Christmas was felt at Julien Elementary School Wednesday afternoon thanks to the jolly smile of Santa Claus, sacks filled to the brim with gifts and the generosity of the Letters to Santa Charity, which has helped over 2,000 children enjoy the holidays this season.
The charity, now in its 11th year, was originally the “wild” idea of Turlock resident and Modesto firefighter Justin Crone. The effort has grown exponentially since 2009, with Letters to Santa raising $7,600 in its first year to pulling in $283,000 for the cause this year. The money helped provide 2,137 students with not only gifts that included a new coat, shoes, socks, underwear, pants, a shirt and a toy, but also contributed to a turkey dinner for their families.
In total, 720 families were helped by the charity this year. There were 700 children in Turlock who benefitted from Letters to Santa, including students from Julien, Wakefield Elementary School, Cunningham Elementary School, Crowell Elementary School and Dennis Earl Elementary School.
“These kids probably wouldn’t get to have any other Christmas if it weren’t for this, and they get to have an experience with Santa,” Crone said. “It’s hard to walk away from this and not be emotional.”
Santa Claus greeted each child by name on Wednesday with a booming “hello,” handing them a bag filled with presents and, of course, posing for a photo. Once a student is selected by school staff for Letters to Santa, Crone said that his organization looks to see if the chosen household has any other children under 17, and those kids receive gifts as well.
The turkey dinners for each family are put together annually by the Turlock FoodMaxx, with which Crone said the Letters to Santa Charity has a great relationship.
“It’s been crazy picking up 720 turkeys,” Crone laughed. “People that are donating are local business owners, so we want them to know we’re turning this money right back around and putting it into the community. When you’re helping the kids, it makes the whole thing go around.”
Letters to Santa raises funds each year through both a golf tournament and dinner.
“Every year we’ve made just a little bit more,” Crone said. “Last year we thought it was the golden year and that we’d never make that much again, and then this year we just couldn’t believe it.”
In addition to the students helped each year, Letters to Santa also identifies a family in need who may benefit from a bit of extra help. Last year, the organization helped a homeless Turlock family find a home when they were living in their car.
“I just had a little vision that grew. Your vision has to change and grow as you see the need,” Crone said. “I keep hearing the word ‘legacy’ and it’s kind of a neat thing, but for me the best part is getting to see so many amazing things even amongst the people who are trying to help.”
For more information on the Letters to Santa Charity, visit www.letterstosantacharity.com.