Baltimore tradition makes Christmas happen for thousands

(christmas day centerpiece offering - there is another assignment w/ Pitts)Please photograph people buying $4 heart ornaments at th
(Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Thoughts of childhood Christmases flooded Wendy Winebrenner's mind this month when she opened her mailbox to find an envelope stuffed with gift certificates.

Growing up in the O'Donnell Heights project in Baltimore, Winebrenner and her family depended on those donations from Santa Claus Anonymous to buy one another presents. But this year, Winebrenner, who is now raising her grandson in Middle River, sent the gift certificates back.


Winebrenner, 49, had saved enough for the holiday. Though money is still tight, she wanted to see the gift help another needy family. "If ever you think what you do goes unnoticed or not remembered," she wrote the charity, "you are wrong."

Santa Claus Anonymous, now in its 79th year, is one of only a handful of Christmas-focused nonprofits in Maryland. Such groups work year-round in anticipation of a single day, but they say they can never raise enough to reach every deserving family.


"The need's immense; the phone rings all day and all night," said Jim Russell, who's been active with Santa Claus Anonymous for 20 years. The Baltimore-based charity mailed roughly 15,000 gift certificates to Maryland families this year — well short of its annual goal of 30,000.

Seasonal charities face unique challenges — and advantages — compared to nonprofits with year-round missions, said Lindsay J.K. Nichols, a spokeswoman with GuideStar, which gathers information on the country's tax-exempt organizations.

It can be hard for charities to raise money for Christmas when the holiday is months away, she said, but as the day grows closer the groups' specific mission can be a great help in marketing.

"When you say the word 'Christmas,' there are certain feelings you get," Nichols said.

At Santa Claus Anonymous, organizers send their annual direct mailing to 250,000 Maryland households around Thanksgiving and hold a wine and beer tasting and silent auction in early December, two of their biggest fundraising drives.

Seeing its most success in the 1980s and 1990s, Russell said, the nonprofit is now beginning to recover from the recession and its lingering economic aftermath. It brought in approximately $275,000 in contributions each of the last several years.

David Blumberg, president of the board, said Santa Claus Anonymous owes its longevity, in part, to the anonymity component.

"Our charity has stood the test of time," he said. "We're a Baltimore tradition."

Donors give money to the organization, which provides $15 gift certificates to children selected by social services organizations based on need. The gift certificates — which can be used only for children's items — are honored at a dozen stores, mostly local businesses. The charity is considering raising the amount to $20; the idea is to ensure that each child gets at least one gift.

The average donation to the charity is $26 and most contributions come from Pikesville and Dundalk. Some of the donations have come as single dollar bills; one was a $3 money order.

The Christmas Village, an outdoor German-style market at the Inner Harbor, also collects donations for Santa Claus Anonymous through the sale of $4 heart ornaments that are hung on a "wish tree." A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the ornaments goes to the charity, although the village wouldn't disclose the amount.

Blumberg said Santa Claus Anonymous is trying to find ways to adapt to the changing times with social media campaigns and online outreach. The group needs to reach new contributors to supplement an aging donor base, Blumberg said.


He said even though the organization is focused on Christmas, it works year-round.

"It's a lot like being in the restaurant business or on a sporting team — you have a goal, you know what it is, you work for it and when you get there, you have all this euphoria," Blumberg said.

Another Maryland nonprofit that focuses exclusively on the holiday season is the Christmas Project Inc. Employees of Northrop Grumman have been operating the charity each year since 1967.

Every fall, a panel takes suggestions for shelters or special-needs schools in the area that need help. Members cull four institutions from that list (two for children, two for adults) and swing into action, enlisting fellow workers to research the gift needs of every recipient, do the shopping, wrap the presents and stuff the stockings (more than 300 this year).

They all take a vacation day a week or so before Christmas, load themselves onto a bus and the gifts into a company truck. They stop at each site, Santa in tow, for an hour's worth of carols and cheer.

More than 60 employees made the all-day trek on Tuesday of last week, said chairman Bob Hodges, who along with his wife, Diane Bissell-Hodges, logs 200 or more hours every year on the effort.

The group made the most of $45,000 in donations. It got rehabilitative equipment, Wii systems, laptops, puzzles, games and more for two special-education institutions, Claremont High School and St. Elizabeth School. They also donated new cookware, DVD players, karaoke machines, dolls, blankets and personal care items for residents at Epiphany House and Micah House, transitional housing organizations operated by Habitat America, and at Ridgeway Manor Nursing Home in Catonsville.

The effort leaves everyone exhausted, said Hodges, an engineer who has been chairman since 1986, but it's worth it.

"We're very blessed here in our work and in our lives, and there are a lot of people out there who haven't been as lucky," he said. "This is what the people of Northrop Grumman want to do at Christmastime."

At Santa Claus Anonymous, Russell became involved after being a beneficiary of the charity as a child. Growing up in the old Claremont public housing in East Baltimore, Russell said, his mother, a widow with two young sons, didn't have enough left over in her meager budget to buy presents.

Russell's daughter, Nicole, now serves as the charity's part-time director. She said she wants to give other families the same experience her father and grandmother had.

"We want the parents to be able to shop for their child and have that dignity and respect," Nicole Russell said. "They can buy shoes or winter boots or books. They get the joy, too, not just the kids.

"Nothing feels better than getting a present for your child."


Recommended on Baltimore Sun