Sandy Community Action Center brightens the holiday for children

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - The Sandy Community Action Center is still hoping to receive donations for its annual Santa Day. The event takes place at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 22.

Standing in a line wrapped around the block on a chilly December day, a shy teenage boy didn’t know what to think as he awaited his first encounter with Santa Claus.

For years, his mother tried her best to make Christmas a special day, but there’s still only so much a homeless family can do.

The boy slowly shuffled toward the front of the line, head down, growing more nervous with each step.

Finally, it was his turn.

At the front of the line, the boy was frozen by the sight of Santa and the stocking full of gifts he was about to receive.

“This is for you,” said Santa, as he leaned forward and extended his arm.

The boy’s eyes grew big, his heart began to race and, suddenly, he started to cry.

“I’ve never had anything for Christmas — ever,” the boy said.

It’s not only a grateful mother and son who will forever treasure that day. Rita Ezard vividly remembers the sight of the boy overwhelmed by a simple gift.

“When you’re homeless, especially a child, you’re so insecure,” she said. “Everything is so disorganized and confusing. You don’t know where you’re going to be sleeping or if you’re going to have a place to sleep. You don’t know if you’ll have food to eat, or if you’re going to have a warm blanket, or if anybody out there even cares.

“So to actually be given something and not have to beg for it is amazing to them.”

Some taking part in Santa Day at the Sandy Community Action Center are homeless, while others barely make ends meet. But no matter the circumstances, Ezard has given needy families a Christmas through the program for the last 18 years.

It takes months of preparation, but Ezard and her small army of volunteers have always had a toy for the more than 400 people who line up along Pioneer Boulevard on the first Saturday before Christmas every year. The children (18 and younger), receive a stocking and meet Santa while their parents pick out a gift, which they can wrap and put under the tree on Christmas Day.

“For me and a lot of my volunteers, we focus all of our energy on this day,” said Ezard, who serves as the Action Center’s executive director. “That’s how we celebrate Christmas, by being here. And the people who come here aren’t our clients. They’re our family and friends.”by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Santa Day is in its 19th year of bringing gifts to needy children for Christmas.

It pains Ezard to see the amount of need in the community and know that for many children, these will be the only gifts they receive.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘We didn’t know how we were going to have Christmas,’ ” Ezard said.

Santa Day is limited to children living within the Oregon Trail School District in order to accommodate the ever-growing number of needy families.

When Ezard started this event in 1994, she needed gifts for 57 children. But every year the task becomes tougher. With a weakened economy forcing more families to the streets or into poverty, Ezard and her volunteers work feverishly to provide Christmas for the hundreds of children who line up on Santa Day.

“We have so many kids that getting enough gifts is hard,” Ezard said.

While the number of children visiting Santa has increased, the economy has limited donations.

A couple years ago the action center was running out of gifts while many kids were still lined up outside. Ezard feared it would be the first time she’d have to turn away a child.

But a couple of volunteers, determined to save Christmas, drove to a store and bought a cart-full of toys.

“That’s one thing I’m proud to report — we’ve never had to turn away a child,” Ezard said. “For this program, it seems like miracles happen.”

Angela Grozan’s seven children have been recipients of those miracles since the event began.

Grozan’s husband is a construction worker and the job hasn’t always been reliable. Sometimes he’s only been able to work a few weeks out of the year. Some years, not at all.

But no matter how dire times become, Grozan always knows she’ll have a gift to put under the tree.

“Christmas wouldn’t be the same without Santa Day,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful blessing. It gives them more of a Christmas than there would be otherwise.”

And as reliable as Santa Day is for needy families, so is the program’s keystone volunteer, Rich Herman, who’s played Santa Claus for the last 16 years.

The Christmas wishes he receives from young girls and boys are far different than the ones from children at shopping malls.

When a young teenage girl sat on Herman’s lap a couple years ago, she didn’t want a cell phone or a purse.

She was an orphan, separated from her sister for more than a year. In that time, she hadn’t seen or talked to her sister. The girl didn’t even know where her sister was living. Her only Christmas wish was knowing that her sister was safe.

“Some kids won’t tell you what they want because they’re tired of wishing,” Herman said. “They don’t have faith in wishing anymore.

“Doing this makes me realize how fortunate I am compared to other people who are down on their luck.”

Santa Day is rapidly approaching, and Ezard is scrambling to ensure this is another successful year. That means canvassing the community to ask for donations and search for help. She’s thankful for organizations such as Oregon City’s “Fill a Heart, Fill a Stocking” program, which is donating 300 toy-filled stockings, and Grocery Outlet, which set up a giving tree inside the store.

“We’re just grateful to get anything,” Ezard said.

She admits that the preparation and uncertainty is stressful. But when the doors open on a late December morning, for hundreds of children, a Christmas wish will come true.

“It’s a blessing to know that no matter how tough life gets and how many changes come in your life, Santa Day is steady,” Grozan said. “It’s always there for you.”

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