This is the story of real Christmas miracles. It’s also the story about the power of faith and of one little boy’s letter to Santa.
Everything in here (and so much more) is true. It all happened.
It December 1994. I was the program director of a classic rock station in Sacramento, CA and along with Mark Davis and Kat Maudru, hosted the “Jeff and Mark” morning show. The main post office on Royal Oak had a room where you could read letters that little kids had written to Santa. We decided to have a look; surely there would be some funny letters we could read on the air.
It’s important to note, these letters were not sent to the radio station. These kids had no clue we would see their letters. They were addressed to ”Santa – North Pole.”
They didn’t disappoint! One kid asked Santa for a Bazooka! A real Bazooka. Another little boy petitioned St Nick for a gold Cadillac and still another was pretty straightforward; he asked for $1 million. We had certainly found what we were looking for!
Then we found the letter that changed everything. It was from a little boy named Nicky. The cool thing about Santa Clause is that you can ask Santa for anything! He is magic. Nothing is too big for St. Nick, right? So what was Nicky’s wish for Christmas?
“Dear Santa, (he wrote) Please bring a bed for my little brother. He is sick because he sleeps on the floor all the time. Thank you, Nicky.”
We were floored. I have led a pretty good life and evidently a sheltered one because it never occurred that there were children with no bed to sleep in. I couldn’t stop the tears. What could we do about this?
Nicky could ask for anything. He asked for a bed for his brother. He asked for NOTHING for himself. What a kid! There was a return address on the envelope so a visit was paid to Nicky’s while he was at school.
Nicky lived in a crappy apartment in a crappy part of Sacramento. Nicky’s mom answered the door and was a little suspicious when asked if she had a son named Nicky. “Did you know he wrote a letter to Santa?” She said “no.” When shown the letter written in her son’s own hand she read it, and tears ran down her cheeks. Asked if it was true that Nicky’s brother had no bed to sleep on, she nodded, then added, “Nicky doesn’t have a bed either.”
Let that sink in a second…
You are a little kid and can ask Santa for anything. Video games, bikes, toys…the sky’s the limit and a kid who has nothing asks Santa for a bed for his brother. How can we not help this kid?
After being invited in, we learned more about Nicky and his brother. Then we went back to the station and called Dale Carlsen. Dale owns a company called “Sleep Train” that sells high end mattresses and frames and everything you need for a great night’s sleep. We told Dale about Nicky and Dale said “Nicky and his brother will not spend another night on the floor.” That very day, 2 brand new beds were delivered to Nicky’s home.
We were so moved, we decided to share Nicky’s letter with our audience. The reaction was swift. Many were moved to tears. They wanted to help. Listeners brought new bikes, stuffed animals, new clothing and more. We asked Nicky’s mom what the boys would want if they could have anything and we took notes. We covered everything on the list and still had a conference room full of toys!
We went back to the post office in search of other letters like Nicky’s. We found 2 more and after visiting the mom, read those on the air as well.
We chose the Saturday before Christmas to deliver everything and surprise the kids. Of course, we had Santa do the actual delivery. When we arrived at each home, Santa had read the letter from the child and knew each kids name in the home. This was personal. This was magic.
The looks on the faces of the children when Santa addressed them by name and seemed to know everything about them made this so special. There were lots of tears. In addition to the morning team and Santa, we had a listener named Greg Bevard who volunteered use of a trailer which we loaded with Christmas trees, and a Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff, John Garcia.
By the end of the last delivery, we were spent emotionally. It was an apartment building and when Santa showed up, many kids ran out and we panicked! We can’t have Santa walk into one apartment with toys and tell everyone else “Sorry, nothing for you!” Fortunately, we had some extra toys and stuffed animals and we brought them along just in case and these filled the bill perfectly.
We were exhausted after this unforgettable night.
While we didn’t forget this experience the next year, we had no plans to repeat it. Plus, we really didn’t have a name for it. We sort of just did it. Well, in early November the calls from listeners started, asking if we were going to do this again. One listener said “Are you going to do that “Santa Letters” thing again?” There it was. Simple. “Santa Letters” and that’s what it became.
The 2nd year we were able to find more letters and help more kids. It was exponentially bigger. Listeners came to the rescue. Dale Carlsen told us, “Every kid that needs a bed will receive a bed” sending a Sleep Train truck and a crew of two employees to help. By the 3rd year we delivered 23 new beds. These were not cheap beds. These were nice high end quality beds!
Over the years, Santa Letters expanded. I brought it with me when I went to Houston. The people there embraced it as well. The last year we did it we had a caravan of Seven 24 foot trucks fully loaded. A police escort of 6 police cars and dozens of Santa’s helpers handing out over $100,000 in toys, bikes, beds and other amazing things. The magic was still in how Santa made it personal, still knowing the names of the kids he visited.
Another angel we found was named Barry Goldware. Barry owns Sun and Ski Sports. Bikes were very important to us because they were important to the kids. They represent freedom, provide exercise and they are fun. Every kid should have a bike. Barry donated some bikes the first year and went with us to see the kids that received them. After that he pledged, like Dale before him, that every kid that wanted a bike would get one. Sun and Ski doesn’t sell Schwinn, they sell Masi, Fuji, Marin and Raleigh. Nice bikes. Barry even loaned us a mechanic named Casey for the month of December to assemble and repair donated bikes from listeners.
There were many miracles associated with Santa Letters over the years. Not the least of which was how we could get the letters from the kids, visit the parent(s) while the kid was at school, then read the letter on air, get listeners to “adopt” a child or family and then get those things to us in time for us to wrap or assemble and then deliver by the Saturday before Christmas. Kids don’t write their letters to Santa in September like we wished…they write them in December which leaves us very little time, but somehow it all came together. Organizing a caravan of that size is an exercise in logistics and planning.
What makes Santa Letters special is what also makes it so difficult. Most charities choose to help a lot of kids and as a result, donated items are divvied up by age and sex. 13 year old boy? Here’s your Radio controlled car. 6 year old girl? Here’s your Barbie. Not a terrible way to go about giving, especially to a child who has little…but Santa letters adds in the NAME of the child and what they really truly want. Then get the best we can find.
The letters the kids write often offer little into what their desires are. The kids we look for are asking for someone else, so we visit the mom and see what we can find out. If a young boy likes the Houston Rockets, we ask mom what size he wears and then spend a couple of hundred dollars on a Rockets jacket at the team store. It’s personal. Whatever these kids want, we make it happen.
Some have stayed in my heart and will remain forever. We never had to say ”No” to a child…even though some things they asked for were way beyond our ability to deliver, but with a large radio audience, anything is possible. Here are a few examples:
A young girl in Houston named Lydia asked Santa for a new leg for her father. His had been amputated. He was a carpet layer and couldn’t work with one leg. He was not in the country legally and could not get a prosthetic because of that. We found a listener to skip the red tape and get him a new leg. Their landlord used their immigration status against them by refusing to fix several broken windows. I called Lowes and got the windows donated. I called Home Depot and they provided a crew to install them. Ever heard of THAT before? Another miracle!
An 8 year old named ElMarcus asked Santa if he could find his dad. His brothers and sisters all knew their dads, but he didn’t. “Please Santa, help find my dad” he wrote. We asked the mom if that was OK, and she agreed, supplying us with his name and date of birth. We were able to locate him, in prison. Our friends at Budweiser paid for a van to drive ElMarcus to see his dad. He was unaware he even had a son. Hopefully, meeting him will turn his life around.
A young girl asked for Santa to provide kidney dialysis for her aunt so she wouldn’t die. Otherwise she would be deported to Honduras. We found a clinic to provide this service free of charge and without asking about immigration status.
In Sacramento a young boy said other kids teased him mercilessly because he lived in the ugliest house on the street. “Santa” found a house painter to turn his house into the nicest looking on the street.
In Houston a young girl asked Santa for a new washer and dryer for her mom. Ordinarily, we aren’t worried about what the mom wants, this is about the kids. Also, sometimes it’s all we can do not to call Child Protective Services on some of these parents. But when the little girl explained that she wanted the washer and dryer because her mom takes her to the Laundromat late at night and there are a lot of “drug people” around. She is in the 3rd grade and she is kept up late at night while her mom does the wash, she is having a hard time in school. She got her new washer and dryer, but upon seeing the house, we also found an electrician because the whole house had to be re-wired.
There was a mom we visited that was trying to get her life back. She had been incarcerated and lost her kids. She was getting them back around Christmas. Her son had written the letter and seemed so excited to be back living with his mom and brother. The apartment had a small table with 4 chairs, a 12” black and white TV sitting on 2 phone books. Other than that, there was not a stick of furniture in the place. No dishes. No pots and pans. Just a roof over her head. So first thing, we told he we would get beds delivered and we went from there. We asked about the kids, one had wanted an electric car that you could ride in. We asked her if we could bring dishes and kitchen stuff and she said yes. She was excited but maintained her composure until as an afterthought on the way out we asked if she wanted a Christmas tree. She completely lost it, dissolving into tears. We realized quickly that to someone who has nothing, a Christmas tree is a ridiculous luxury that can’t be afforded, but it is also a symbol of what is normal. She was so excited to have a tree.
There was the little boy who wrote that he wanted a heater. That’s all we knew. We got to the house and found a family of 6 living in a garage with no heat, and also no beds. We fixed them up big time!
One of the more memorable kids wasn’t a letter writer, he was a street tough. There were maybe 3 or 4 African American males hanging out in the courtyard of an apartment complex. It was our last stop this particular year and everything had gone well. It was very emotional and we were all tired. There was my partner Mark, Santa, Deputy John and me walking up to the last apartment. These tough kids were heckling Santa and shouting challenges at us. I am glad we had Deputy John! We ignored them and made the last delivery. We were inside for maybe 25 minutes. When we came out there was only one kid left. He looked to be about 13 or so. As we walked by, he made a beeline for Santa and put both hands on Santa’s shoulders. (John stood by, ready, but watching) The kid then spoke to Santa. He said “I don’t know if you are the real Santa or not, but if you are, would you tell my dad I love him?” Santa hugged the boy and we all dissolved into tears.
I will never forget the apartment manager at a large complex near Hobby Airport in Houston (a very poverty stricken part of Houston in the South Central school district). One young girl had written a letter and I came to visit her mom. I pulled in and asked the manager of the sprawling complex where I would find her. There near her desk were 2 small bags from Target. She asked who I was and what I wanted with her. I told her about Santa Letters. She lit up and told me that was wonderful because she needed all the help she could get! She could now cross one more child off the list. I asked how many kids she had in the complex. She replied “163.” Without thinking about it, I told her we would take care of all of them. She stared; slack jawed and then burst into tears not believing what had just happened. We made sure every one of those kids had a great Christmas.
By the time I got to Houston, Santa Letters had grown so large that we took over the offices of 6 Flags in Houston for the month of December. We had all of the furniture removed from the offices so we could fill them with donated Christmas gifts. It was a make-shift Santa’s workshop. We had bike mechanics outside and gift wrappers inside. We would work long hours with music blaring and living on pizza and soft drinks. Just about every waking hour in the month of December up to the Saturday before Christmas was spent working on Santa Letters.
The day before the delivery, one of the last things we would do was take a big truck to area Christmas tree lots near closing time. By a few days before Christmas they have sold all the trees they are going to, so we tell them our story and we usually get as many trees as we want. So we have a big truck full of trees to distribute in the neighborhoods.
The night before delivery day, the trucks holding the presents for the letter writers are loaded in reverse order of the route and tied off. Once those trucks are fully loaded, everything else, and that is an immense amount of bikes and toys is loaded onto the other trucks.
One huge truck is packed full of bicycles. Another is full of Christmas trees. One major element we added in the last few years saves lives. In speaking with the parents (usually just the mom) I would look around the home and see if they had a smoke detector. Mostly, they didn’t, so I made a note. I contacted a person at Lowes and they gave me all the smoke detectors I needed and a 3-person crew to install them. As we would pull into a neighborhood, Santa would run in to the letter writers house, the other trucks and police vehicles would raise heck and all the kids in the neighborhood would come out and we’d load them up. We packed the cop cars with stuffed animals. It was nice to see positive interaction between the inner city residents and the police. We would hand out trees, clothing, bikes and toys to whoever needed it. The Lowes team would go up and down the street installing dozens of smoke detectors at each stop. Then we’d head off to the next house on the route.
Santa Letters isn’t a contest. The kids had no idea a radio station was behind this. They just wrote a letter to Santa, because they believed. For many of these kids we were handing them the first bike they would ever have…or the first bed.
Back at Lydia’s house while Santa was inside a particularly grumpy female police officer who earlier was grousing about working on a weekend went inside and saw what was going on. The eyes of the children opening presents that their parents could NEVER afford to give them, dad (being informed that his daughter’s wish for him to have a new leg had been granted) leaned in a corner fighting tears seeing his kids so happy. This tough officer stepped outside wiping tears away now and another officer started giving her a hard time about it. She fixed him with a hard stare and said “I’m a mom first, and a cop second.” Nobody who sees this is ever the same.
I brought my daughters along with me over the years and they loved handing out presents to other kids. Santa Letters will forever be a part of my heart.
It’s the magic of Christmas, and the power of one little boy’s letter to Santa.