Dane County has over one thousand children without permanent shelter every night. Many of these families and those in their situation have been too easily overlooked or ignored. That is until this year when community organizers found a way to reach those children directly. The Autonomous Solidarity Organization brought holiday gifts to families who were not be able to purchase or pick up presents for their children. This effort, named "Santas Without Chimneys", brought clothing, art supplies, toys, books, food, and more to over 100 children.
The ASO aligned with local community groups like Laborers International of North America Local 236 to collect and deliver gifts across Dane County on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Citizens from all over Wisconsin supported the effort with over 2,000 donations total. Each child received a large, personalized bundle of toys, books, art supplies, and a blanket donated by Project Linus. The ASO carried on a tradition of community-building that brought the group together during and directly after the Capitol Occupation in February, 2011. The endeavor embodies the ASO mission of empowerment and solidarity, building a stronger, more tightly-knit community through outreach and compassion.
This was evidenced by the stories shared by Santas, Elves, and Reindeer returning from their delivery runs. Michelle Ritt, who delivered presents with her entire family had this to say: "Santas Without Chimneys brought meaning to the holiday season this year for my entire family. We gathered a huge pile of donations and helped wrap for what seemed like hours on end. We organized and re-organized until each family had the perfect pile of toys, books, blankets and clothing. Finally, it was time for Santa and the Elves to make deliveries. We loaded up my van with gifts, dear Santa (City Plow Driver, Todd Endres) and a pile of Elves. One of the best parts of the day, was seeing the pure joy in the eyes of the parent who answered the door and welcomed us inside. Some of the children had never met Santa before. What an honor it was to witness the delight and surprise when the children helped Santa bring in the bags of gifts.”
Ritt continued, “One family had a tree with nothing under it; when we left their home, presents were spilling out all over the floor. Parents watched their children hug Santa, with tears in their eyes. Each parent looked at me, tears brimming in their eyes, and mouthed the words, "thank you." There were many, many hugs shared.”
Ritt closed with this, “One of the most beautiful parts of the day to me, was when i pulled the sleigh into the North Pole after a morning filled with deliveries. I was ready to hang up my pointy ears and drive home, knowing my kids (ages 11 and 12) were tired after so many hours in the car. They were also excited about going home and opening their own gifts... When I told them I would be right back and we would head home, they both shouted, "no! we want to do more!" So, we loaded up again. It was a beautiful and perfect day."
Their “Santa”, Todd Endres, said his favorite thing about the day “was that many of the young kids still believed in Santa and when we entered one apartment the six year old boy stood in amazement and shouted to his brothers and sisters "Santa came, I knew he would come, Santa is here everyone, I just really knew he would come here!"
Endres continued “This little boy was from a family whom had lost everything to a fire and were living with relatives. It was just so touching the way he was so excited and was so sure that Santa would show up. All of the kids who were young and believed in Santa were just awestruck. It was without a doubt the best Christmas I have ever had bringing that kind of happiness to young kids whom really didn't have a very good Christmas lined up."
One local donation Elf, Emily Russell, even spotted one of her gifts. Her sister Natalie says, "At Urgent Care West I just saw a small child walk past with Emily's blue and yellow hat she donated! I walked past them and the other boy was wearing that infamous gray AF hat I found in high school! Oh, and I told the boy that I liked his hat!"
Santa CJ Terrell said his favorite moment was “the little girl who took a picture with me and then kissed her mom and went straight to sleep so she could wake up and open her presents.”
Organized by members Carrie Riddle, Sasha Troha, Sara Gilbertson, Brel Hutton-Okpalaeke, and Odysseas Ladopoulos, they showed significant organizing prowess in coordinating the extraordinary effort. Working with public school social workers, Troha could reach out directly to parents to find out what individual children actually needed. Organizers made direct asks of people they knew via social media or the phone, contributing to Santas Without Chimneys' great success.
Dozens of people were involved in wrapping parties, starting the night of a blizzard on December 19th and going into the morning of Christmas Eve itself. Plow workers from Local 236 worked long hours clearing streets for the people of Madison and then came to help deliver presents the morning of the 24th.
The ASO is tremendously pleased with the positive reaction and enthusiasm surrounding Santas Without Chimneys. Many people responded to the opportunity to give directly to those most deserving particularly once donors were alerted to the need of so many families whose plight has so often been overlooked or unknown.
Donation sites included the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, the Madison Labor Temple, the Red Dragon Cultural Center, the Tenant Resource Center, and The Fountain Restaurant and Bar.
Thanks especially to Project Linus for a donation of 200 blankets, Artist & Craftsman Supply Madison for a generous donation of art supplies, Amy Noble (social worker for the Madison school district), Jani Koester of the Transition Education Program (TEP), Betsy Wilcox, Michelle Ritt, Jeanie Erickson, and the Goodman Community Center. Jeanne Erickson and Project Babies supplied beautifully wrapped care packages for children infant through toddler age. The Boot Brigade, with First United Methodist Church’s outreach director, Karen Andro, supplied children with boots to keep their feet warm. Athens Gyros of Waunakee supplied our volunteers with tasty treats throughout the project.
The effort to serve this community continues with the ASO collecting presents throughout January for other charitable initiatives. Currently being planned is a birthday program with the leftover presents including an ongoing drive for winter apparel and goods to help these families make it through another long, cold Wisconsin winter.
The Autonomous Solidarity Organization relies on fundraising through their own programs and particularly the kind donations of supporters. To that end, the ASO has applied for federal tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Once this designation is granted, the full amount of your contribution will be deductible for federal income tax purposes. Every dollar and donation helps keep these children warm, healthy, and brings them one step closer to an even brighter future. For more information please visit www.asolidarity.org.