Bert Cormier, left, past president of Santa’s Angels, hands out gifts to kids at the Seminole Mall during a Breakfast with Santa event.
REDINGTON BEACH – As the holiday jingle goes, Santa may know when you’ve been good, naughty, asleep or awake, but it’s doubtful he knows when someone is too poor to indulge in Christmas gift giving.
Enter Santa’s Angels, a dedicated group of Redington Beach residents, whose volunteers for the last 25 years, shop for and distribute toys, food and serve up a generous dollop of holiday cheer to needy families who might otherwise have little to celebrate.
“As we make the circle bigger with other participants outside our own backyard, we find that everyone is receptive to our mission ... with that, we also have more volunteers because when you learn about Santa’s Angels you want to become a part of Santa’s Angels,” said Donna Steiermann, the organization’s current president.
The various Pinellas County social services, including the Salvation Army, the courts’ guardian ad-litum counselors as well as the Boley Centers, identify those children and families who have fallen on hard times and meet the criteria for Santa’s Angels assistance.
“You would be amazed by the amount of poverty here in Pinellas County,” said Lynne Hawthorne, executive director of Santa’s Angels, who with her husband, Wally (“Head Schlepper”) the group’s current vice president, established Santa’s Angels back in 1987 in conjunction with the county’s juvenile services.
About 95 percent of the families helped by Santa’s Angels are headed by single parents. Some of the children are in foster care or being raised by grandparents.
The parents are given a form on which to choose what types of gifts their children might like and are also asked to provide their kids’ ages, clothing size, interests, etc. “It provides a lot of guidance to us as to what is on the children’s’ which list,” said Steiermann.
A volunteer can choose to sponsor either just one child or a whole family. He or she shops for the gifts and if they wish may also deliver them.
When the organization was first formed, only a few residents were able to help a small number of families and while the operating budget and volunteer base has grown so has the number of local area families needing assistance.
Classified as a not-for-profit Florida corporation, the Angels hold fundraising events, and volunteers receive a $50 reimbursement for each child they shop for. However, Wally Hawthorne said people often spend more than the allotment and refuse the compensation.
In the days leading up to Christmas, the Angels set up a workshop in a donated space housed in the Seminole Mall where they wrap and tag gifts, assemble food baskets and receive donations. On Dec. 20 and 21, Angels deliver the gifts.
“It’s very tangible, it’s very meaningful, and I think that is what also attracts volunteers,” Steiermann said.
Volunteers who adopt children or families can choose whether to bring their gifts in person or to have another volunteer make the delivery.
Last season, 85 volunteers donated their services providing gifts for 268 children as well as food baskets for 80 families to include all the fixings for a holiday meal. This year, the Angels expect to “adopt” 288 children along with many families.
Wally, a retired contractor, describes himself as “a big guy” well over 6 feet, says he gets a kick when kids look up at him in awe and say, “I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
One of the most poignant moments, Lynne recalls, was a little girl who gazed at all the presents under the Christmas tree that were brought by the Santas, not quite believing they were meant for her and her family.
She then approached Lynne and took off a little gold necklace she was wearing and “probably the only thing she owned,” Lynne said, and offered it in thanks. “It just about broke my heart. I told her it wouldn’t fit me so she should keep it,”
The bulk of Angels seed money is obtained by holding several events throughout the year such as an Oktoberfest in the fall and a Cinco de Mayo party in the spring. Steiermann said the group plans a 1950s sock hop with live music and dancing in March of this next year.
“Increasing attendance at our events is something we are trying very hard to do,” said Steiermann.
As a small community, many Redington Beach residents take an avid interest in Santa’s Angels. “Our children have grown up with it,” said Steiermann.
Indeed all five of the Steiermann brood, ranging in age from 12 to 21, have always served in some capacity as volunteers.
Aside from revenue generated from community events, the group gets some supplemental income in the form of grants and donations. With an opening balance this past year of over $16,000, the group took in over $17,000 while expenses, including buying the fixings for all the food baskets and reimbursement for shoppers, came to $23,000.
A source of pride among Santa’s Angels is its all-volunteer staff. No one, including the group’s six board members, receives any type of salary.
Administrative expenses are kept to a bare minimum ensuring that all generated income goes directly to the children.
“Unlike most other organizations, we are fortunate to be able to do that,” said Lynne Hawthorne.
Besides Steiermann, whose husband, Fred, sits on Redington Beach Town Commission, and the Hawthornes, other board members include Redington Beach Commissioner Mark Deighton, Eike Deighton and past Santa’s Angel President, Bert Comier.
The reality of course is that while fundraisers and individual donations provide the much needed seed money with which to purchase toys and food, there’s room to grow.
Wally admits that “shaking money out of people” often proves a daunting task.
Steiermann said while a number of local businesses, big and small, have been very generous with donations, there’s always room for more. As such, plans are underway to woo additional corporate sponsors whom she says, “have the resources to help our mission ... that is going to make a big difference.”
“Making a difference for 280 children, I can tell you, is very gratifying,” she said.