For three years, Heather Jacobs bundled up on a chilly December morning outside a nondescript Littleton warehouse for the chance to bring Christmas …
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For three years, Heather Jacobs bundled up on a chilly December morning outside a nondescript Littleton warehouse for the chance to bring Christmas to her daughter.
She didn't have money to buy presents. But inside the Arapahoe Santa Shop, that didn't matter. There, she could wander delightedly among tables laden — like a wondrous feast — with puzzles, games and dolls. She could choose gifts her daughter would love most, then head home with a sack filled with toys, wrapping paper and bows.
“I didn't just get a toy,” she said. “I got a whole Christmas.”
This year, with her daughter too old for the program, Jacobs, 37, returned the helping hand. She cleaned, organized and worked at the warehouse, from morning till night, for more than a week before the Dec. 14 and 15 toy distribution days.
“I have to give back for the past,” Jacobs said. “I can't pay it back in cash. … The only thing I really have is time.”
And that, perhaps, is the biggest gift of all.
Inside the chalky warehouse walls swirls a vivid and tangible sense of giving. Like so many elves, volunteers — many longtime returnees in their 70s wearing Santa hats and sweaters in red and green — bestow quick smiles amid the bustle. They kindle a spirit of compassion and selflessness we all hope to impart, but which often is swallowed by the season's busyness and commercial excess.
“They are all a great group,” Jacobs said. “They're really kind, they don't judge, and they genuinely want be here for the kids.”
They have created, as Jacobs noted, a community that for 54 years has consistently dispensed help, wrapped in generous bows of respect and hope, to a population that is often accorded neither.
This year, the Arapahoe Santa Shop served 2,700 children from mostly Littleton, but also Englewood and Sheridan, all referred by schools and social service agencies. Throughout the Denver metro area, many other organizations do the same for families in need. But this particular program, using a system that allocates 100 points per child, uniquely allows families to choose the toys they want until the points are used up.
“It gives them a little dignity,” longtime volunteer Phil Gomez said.
It gives those who make it happen — a toy store of dreams come true — purpose.
“We hope this will be a special part of your Christmas experience,” co-director Shirley Nixon said to volunteers a few minutes before opening the doors. Her voice catches. “It certainly is of mine.”
Nixon, a petite, sprightly woman of 76, has worked with the Santa shop for a decade. The time and dedication of the 400 volunteers — from the women who tenderly sew new doll clothes to the men who diligently repair bikes all year to the older man who carefully builds the wooden cradles — overwhelms her.
“It is a job well done by a wonderful group of people who have the same feeling of wanting to serve the community,” she said. “They saw that these people are in need — and more and more are in need — so here we are filling that void.”
The doors open and the 80 or so men and women already lined up file into rows of hard-backed seats to wait their turn to check in. They are couples and single mothers, grandparents and teen moms. They are Latino and Asian and black and white. They are tired, expectant, humble. They are the faces of everyone.
The gratitude is palpable — in the quick smiles, the fervent thank-yous, the blessings given as they grab a box and begin to piece together a special memory.
David McGowan, 24, is here with his sister, Crystal Kelley, 22, who just left the hospital after a two-week stay. He wants to make sure Kelley, who says she suffers from multiple sclerosis and is a bit unsteady on her feet, doesn't stumble as she shops for her 3-year-old son.
Gifts “would be a struggle, especially with hospital bills,” McGowan said. “And he's a good kid. He deserves presents.”
Kelley places a Bob the Builder DVD in the box her brother carries. “This is the heart of Colorado,” he said, putting his arm around his sister. “It's a beautiful thing.”
At the corner table covered with toys for boys 11 and 12 years old, Theresa O'Connor, 49, checks out a camera. Her 62-year-old husband, unable to work because of illness, sits nearby, an oxygen tank beside him. They have custody of six grandchildren ages 3 to 12, whose mother, O'Connor said, left them almost two years ago.
“This is more important than I can tell you.” Her long hair is pulled loosely back into a ponytail. Her eyes betray a weary sadness. “This will help my grandchildren to have Christmas, at least from their grandparents, because I don't have the money to buy them presents.”
As she walks toward another table, tremulous words float back: “I love them with all my heart.”
Nick Olson's eyes light up as he spots a wooden push-toy. “This is nice.” He smiles and shows it to his girlfriend, Tori Murr. Their son, Jordan, 4 months old, snuggles under a green blanket in a car seat. Olson, 29, also has a 7-year-old son.
Their only income at the moment is the Social Security disability that Murr, 25, receives.
“This is very special for us to be able to come here and do this,” Olson said. “We at least have the chance to put some presents under the tree …”
A xylophone. An Operation board game. A play mat. The wooden push-toy.
It will be a good Christmas. And, hopefully, a good new year.
“I'm really optimistic,” Olson said. “I figure good people … good things come their way. I figure we'll be all right.”
We'll all be all right if we continue to take care of each other.
That would be the best gift of all.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at email@example.com or 303-566-4110.
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