It is one thing to see Santa Claus being pulled in a sleigh by eight tiny reindeer, and quite another to see him with a full police escort down the local streets in Hempstead. This past Saturday residents of the communities of Hempstead, Roosevelt and Uniondale were privy to that unique holiday spectacle as Kris Kringle appeared to deliver Christmas gifts to 17 needy families in low-income and high crime areas.
Instead of elves, Santa's "assistants" for the trip consisted of seven teenage helpers, a school administrator, two teachers, a lawyer and a retired avionic technician carrying goods not down the chimney with glee, but through the front doors of apartments and homes, with that same helping of Christmas cheer.
The logistics of organizing such an event is not the result of a hive of activity at the North Pole, but one much closer to home, at the Uniondale law firm of Duffy & Duffy, specifically personal injury attorney Michael Santo.
Santo's efforts began 15 years ago when he donned a red suit and beard to play Santa for a group of children at in Bayside and evolved over the years into the escorted delivery tour.
"I started this 'project' in 1995 by going to just a few families on my own," Santo said, explaining that for several years he had given up his duties as Saint Nick being busied with the duties of overseeing the whole project. "The idea gradually grew to the point where the volunteers drive a caravan of three mini-vans and a full-size van around the neighborhoods in a systematic delivery system."
In order to travel into these "hot" crime zones, Santo's group enlists the Hempstead Village Police Department, a carefully drawn map of the route and a phone-calling system to notify the recipients with a 10 minute advance call.
The growth has also been in the form of Santo's "helpers," numbering only a handful when he first set out and now requiring a dozen just to deliver the gifts he collects each year for the needy families. He also enlists colleagues at his law firm as well as those at the in Mineola. "A group of 12 people helped me to spend money collected from various people and groups, including law firms and court personnel," Santo, a Bellmore resident who grew up in Uniondale, said.
While toys are always on the list upon their stops in the communities of Uniondale, Hempstead and Roosevelt, Santo makes sure that the families are provided with basic necessities including food, family items and clothing in order to provide comfort and safety year-round. This year the number of gifts exceeded 800.
Santo recalled one year where after delivering gifts to one family, the mother remarked that her smoke detector was no longer working. Upon hearing this, still in full Santa gear, he installed a new alarm for the family.
"This project obviously provides much needed items for families who can use them, but it is never overlooked how this experience positively reflects on the younger volunteers," Santo said. "I consider myself the most fortunate since my daughters participate every year and I get to personally hand deliver the gifts, albeit as a man dressed in a red suit."