BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
---- — SALISBURY — For four decades, no child in Salisbury has awakened on Christmas morning without finding new gifts under the tree — no matter how tough things were for their parents.
That’s been possible because of the hard work of the men and women known in town as Santa’s Helpers.
“I can’t believe this is our 40th year,” said Betty Cloonan, the driving force behind the holiday project. “We started it when my (son) Jimmy was in kindergarten. It started with the Mothers’ Club at Star of the Sea Church, but Rev. Crabtree, who was pastor at East Parish Methodist Church at the time, was also very involved.”
Santa’s Helpers grew out of the after-school program Cloonan and other mothers began initially to provide wholesome, fun activities for local children. It turned into a holiday gift extravaganza when the mothers realized that for some of their children’s friends, Christmas wasn’t such a happy time.
Those mothers, led by Cloonan, decided to do something about it.
That year and every year since, Cloonan and her crew buy thousands of gifts for distribution to local children whose families are enduring financial stress. More than just toys, every child also gets warm winter clothing, like coats, hats and gloves, boots, sneakers, sleepwear and two or three school outfits. Plus, Santa’s Helpers try to get each child his or her favorite wish toy, plus other gifts that are age-appropriate.
“Everything we provide is brand-new,” Cloonan said. “We don’t give used Christmas gifts. Everything is individually wrapped so kids have lots of things to open for Christmas.”
As many as 400 local children are served through the holiday program each year, which requires a lot of work, gifts and money to make it happen.
One of the program’s biggest fundraisers every year is Santa’s Helpers Holiday Auction, which this year takes place on Sunday, Nov. 24, at the Blue Ocean Music Hall. The event offers both silent and live auctions with a range of items, all donated by residents and businesses. Cloonan said there are gift baskets, tickets to sporting events, gift cards, lottery trees and lots more.
“This year the auction includes two certificates for seven-night stays at a Walt Disney resort hotel that sleeps six people,” she added.
Admission to the auction is free and includes a light buffet. Although the party starts at 1 p.m., Cloonan advises arriving by 12:30 p.m. to preview the auction items.
“Gloria Marks goes around collecting all the wonderful gifts for the auction,” Cloonan said. “And Wayne Capolupo has been wonderful in his support of Santa’s Helpers.”
Salisbury Elementary School and its nurse are crucial in ensuring all children in need are embraced by the program. Starting in October, parents and guardians can sign their child or children up for Santa’s Helpers at the school nurse’s office, which can be reached at 978-463-5860.
Cloonan takes the applications and contacts the families, learning what’s needed, correct sizes and kids’ wish lists.
“The majority of families don’t ask for much; you almost have to force it on them,” Cloonan said.
Cloonan and her volunteers find ways to gather, buy, wrap and distribute thousands of gifts before Christmas with the help of a bevy of assistants — some of whom are dressed in their best red and white Santa suits. One who dresses up as one of Santa’s jolly old elves is Salisbury part-time police officer Dennis Lucia.
“I love doing it,” Lucia said. “The kids’ eyes tell you everything. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. This program is all about the great people who open up their hearts and their pocketbooks to make this happen every year. And it’s about Betty Cloonan. If Santa had a wife, she’d be Betty Cloonan. She’s the one with the heart as big as her whole body.”
For years, Lucia and his family, with the help of the Salisbury Police Department, organize a “Stuff the Cruiser” event for Santa’s Helpers. Parked in a central location, the police vehicle becomes an easy place to access for those who want to drop off donations of money or new toys and clothing.
Other groups also rally for the program. Salisbury’s Democratic Town Committee will host a new toy drive in support of Santa’s Helpers on Saturday, Nov. 9, between 10 and 11:30 a.m. at the Hilton Center. Unwrapped toys and checks can be dropped off at that time.
Donations can also be mailed to Santa’s Helpers in care of Salisbury Elementary School at 100 Lafayette Road, Salisbury. Checks should be made payable to Santa’s Helpers.
Cloonan has a message about contributions: “No donation is too small or too large.”