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The Real Social Studies

Something Close To My Heart

In 1985 my father was 28 (my current age), a classroom teacher, department head, volleyball coach, and father of 3 small children. Needless to say, he was very busy. A small local (Fort McMurray, AB) charity called Santas Anonymous was being run by a handful of volunteers, one of them my dad, Gil Espejo.

Santas Anonymous is a charity that provides food, books, toys, juice and Christmas dinner to families without in the community and surrounding areas of Fort McMurray. In 1985 the charity was serving so many families that the volunteers couldn’t keep up and the Christmas hampers couldn’t easily be prepared in any available space. My dad had what I think was a simple but profound idea; run the charity out of his school (Father Patrick Mercredi Community High School) and have the students volunteer their time to help out. There were skeptics at the time who thought that students wouldn’t help, but my father believed in them. As busy as he was, he found the time to make it work.

Fourteen years later – by the time I was in grade 12 – Santas Anonymous had grown to become probably the largest single-school student run charity in Western Canada; possibly in all of North America. In a single weekend the students could raise up to $30 000  in what they call a Miracle Marathon.  In addition to the money, the weekend lead to the collection of truck loads of food, toys, books, and clothing. During a Blitz weekend, which usually occurred 3 or 4 times in the months leading up to Christmas, hundreds of Father Mercredi students would drive around the entire city in small groups, going door to door spreading the word of Santas Anonymous and collecting non-perishable food items and other donations.

I remember in the first week of December dozens of students would go shopping at the local Zellers department store, buying toys for age groups of needy kids that we hadn’t quite collected enough items for during our campaign. We would go around the store and almost clear it out, using funds that we had raised. I’m not certain if this exact activity still happens, but it gives you an idea of the range of work students would take on.

In usually the second week of December all of the food and toys (10s of thousands of items) are moved to the schools gymnasium. The food, collected by students, is piled in a row about 4 ft high, 5 ft deep and 90 ft long (the length of a high school Div 1 basketball court). The toys, books, stuffed animals, and sporting goods form an even larger pile on the opposite side of the gymnasium. In between these two piles are rows of hundreds of empty boxes with the names of families and children – these boxes become the hampers that are driven to recipients by community volunteers and students.

The last day of school before Christmas vacation (December 17th for 2010) is called packing day, and it is one of the most inspiring sights you could ever see.  It is the day where all of the food and other items are carefully packed into hampers for families. Hundreds of volunteer students and community members are organized into teams.  Various teams exist, including: a welcoming committee (human logistics), packing teams, quality control teams (‘Santa’ checks every hamper twice!), loading crews and delivery teams. About 3 or 4 students share the title of “Head Leaders” – they orchestrate much of the activity that occurs throughout the campaign season and on packing day.

For the 1999 campaign season I was a grade 12 student and a co head leader with some great friends; Coady, Carla and Stephanie. At that point I had spent every Christmas season of my life (since 1985 when I was 3) being a part of Santas Anonymous; it was a part of my identity. The last family that I packed a hamper for that year was for a family of 6; two parents, four younger kids. Carla helped me pack it. We chose the soup, canned vegetables, meats, and desserts. We chose the toys and books for each of those children. We wrote cards to the kids by name, wrapping the gifts ourselves, and signed ‘love santa’ for every child. By the time the ‘hamper’ went out the door it was probably 4 or 5 huge boxes full of food, toys, books, and a complete Christmas dinner including turkey, milk, dressing and everything else you can imagine. Christmas is a hard enough time of year of many people – we believed we could at least alleviate the stress of worrying about the necessities and a few gifts.

Last year Santas Anonymous celebrated its 25th anniversary at Father Mercredi. My dad is still working at the high school; now he is the principal. The campaign is still important to the community, and I’m sure will always be influential on the lives of the young volunteers. At least one of the current staff members at Father Mercredi was once a students volunteer with the Santas Anonymous campaign back in the 90’s. Now she is taking the time to facilitate the same amazing experiences and opportunities for her own students.

I think a social justice ‘project’ like santas anonymous is one of the most effective ways to build community within a school. It empowers students and connects them to each other and to the broader community in a way no other activity can – if you don’t believe me please go visit Father Merc during the campaign season where the benefits of the campaign are self-evident.

Over the course of the last 26 years santas anonymous has helped tens of thousands of families and has developed important skills, moral and ethics in thousands of participating students. This wouldn’t happen without the hard work, volunteering and dedication of the teachers involved. Its been said before by many, but I want to reiterate: thank you to the staff members of Father Mercredi for allowing such a program to exist within a school, especially to the teachers (some former) who influenced me personally while I was a student. Mr. Abraham, Mr Henstridge, and especially, my Dad.

My dad recently asked for my help with setting up a webpage. To make it easier for him and others to edit, we set up fmsantas.com using wordpress. Tonight he called me with his next problem – people can’t find his site. He’s not connected enough online. Please share the link on your own blog, website, or twitter account to boost the fmsantas.com google rankings and help the campaign network with the people who need it and the people who can help.

  1. Monty
    November 24, 2010 at 17:22

    Awesome account. Truly reflective of the magic that happens there every year… I still talk about SA to friends, associates and even some people I’ve arrested ;-)… Proud of ya man… and you’re right, you’re dad is a true inspiration. But with all due respect to the old man, I’m thinking you and the other students that made this thing happen were really what fueled this project…

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