January 08, 2013 6:15 am • PAT SCHNEIDER | The Capital Times
Carrie Riddle had a big idea as the Christmas holiday was approaching: bring the joy of Santa Claus to kids who are homeless.
But as a snowplow driver with the city of Madison — toward which a blizzard was streaming across the plains the week of Dec. 17 — Riddle soon found herself working long hours preparing for and cleaning up the foot-and-a-half of wet, heavy snow dumped by the storm. Coordinating a gift-drop was not something she’d be able to spend time doing.
So Riddle got a little help from her friends.
What followed was an inspiring example of cooperation, coordination, and commitment to community service that would not have happened, its architects say, if it had not been for the historic uprising that blossomed at the Capitol two years ago.
Social justice advocates, trade unionists and community-minded people who met each other during the weeks of occupation of the Capitol in opposition to the policies of GOP Gov. Scott Walker got the chance to further develop their capacity for organized action during months of activism leading up to the unsuccessful recall election last summer.
But just a couple of weeks ago, they used it to bring Santa Claus to about 100 children in 30 families.
“Walker gave us the gift of the power of the people” is how one teacher and active member of Madison Teachers Inc. put it. Social media helped the people put their power into action for kids whose glee at being remembered made it quite a holiday for everyone involved.
Riddle told me she has gradually become more involved in political and community activism because of people she met in the uprising. But it was an incident last fall — when the gear of several homeless people was confiscated by city workers from “Veterans Park” plaza at the top of State Street and discarded with trash — that compelled her to become deeply involved with the local homeless population.
Stung by versions of the story blaming the Streets Department for which she works, Riddle told me she managed to get the belongings — backpacks, duffel bags, sleeping bags and the like — returned to their owners, even though many items were ruined.
Since then, Riddle has tapped into a growing network of people who are volunteering to assist the homeless through groups like Occupy Madison and Feeding the State Street Family.
Riddle spends time out on State Street with homeless people, often deep into the night, dressing as if she were homeless, and blogging about her experiences under the name Chaous. “Part of the problem is, people have a tendency to look away from things that disturb them or they don’t want to see. So I go out there, and then I write about it.”
To help make a reality of her dream of “Santa Without Chimneys” for homeless kids not in shelters where Christmas celebrations are held, for kids somehow falling through the cracks in the network of existing toy drive programs, Riddle turned to the Autonomous Solidarity Organization.
ASO is a group of uprising protesters who, not being affiliated with any labor union or student group, formed an organization of their own. The group has organized The People’s Bratfest, which supports local charities, for the past two years and has been involved in voter registration and other community-building efforts.
When the call came from Riddle to help bring Santa to homeless kids, leaders of the group got to work. With the help of Madison School District employees who passed along word of the effort to parents, Sasha Troha began interviewing families about their children and what they would most like to receive.
“Some kids asked for clothes, they asked for snow suits so they can play outside. No one asked for an iPad or video game,” she said, remarking on how humble the children’s expectations were.
The group already had set up giving trees seeking donations for children in five locations around town. When word of Santa without Chimneys got out through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, the ASO website and plain old word of mouth, donations started pouring in.
At least 2,000 donations of toys, clothing, books, food and wrapping paper — much of it new — were received from family, friends, co-workers, local businesses and community groups. Some $800 in cash donations went to buy more gifts and a holiday dinner for some of the families.
People were eager to help once it was brought to their attention that there are homeless children in Madison not likely to have much of a Christmas celebration, said ASO member Sara Gilbertson. “It’s easy to overlook homeless children in Madison; we’re an affluent community, you don’t see them on the street.”
Twenty or more volunteer gift-wrappers worked around the clock in shifts the day before Christmas Eve at ASO headquarters above The Fountain bar and restaurant, 122 State St.
Santas were recruited, and on Christmas Eve they set out accompanied by volunteer elves to deliver the presents to families living doubled up with others, families in apartments without furniture, families living in vehicles.
Michele Ritt, a special education teacher with the Madison School District, brought her husband and children, ages 11 and 12, along to deliver presents. After one round, Ritt said she expected her kids would be ready to go home to their own holiday celebration.
“They both shouted: ‘We want to do more.’ It was one of my proudest moments as a parent,” Ritt said.
She grew up accompanying her grandmother as she did volunteer work, Ritt recalled, but she never would have been part of this particular effort if she had not been part of the protests in 2011, when she became acquainted with activists she would not have met otherwise. “There’s been a beautiful domino effect of human relations,” Ritt told me of involvement in the uprising protests.
“Walker gave us the gift of the power of the people,” she said. “And we’re using those connections not only to work against unjust legislation, but also to help people.”
Bringing Christmas to children in low-income families fits squarely within a mission of activism, Brel Hutton-Okpalaeke told me.
“ASO is first and foremost about community empowerment, and that’s what we did here,” he said. From the people who donated to those who volunteered, to those who received this year, everyone ended up strengthened in their connections to one another, he said.
Hutton-Okpalaeke recalled how moved he was by the joyful reception he and the other ASO volunteers received from a young boy at the first apartment they visited. “He was the most thankful little kid I’ve ever seen,” Hutton-Okpalaeke said.
A lot of the people who worked on the project had emotional stories to tell.
Several people told me about the big bear of a plow driver who, done with a blizzard shift, volunteered to deliver presents and told the story of his experiences through tears.
ASO is working on plans to remember homeless kids on their birthdays, and members say they will definitely do the Christmas program again next year.
“It was the best Christmas I ever had in my life,” said Odysseas Ladopoulos.