Building Community: Santa Claus Girls

WRITER | NICOLETTE CHAMBERY
PHOTOS | SANTA CLAUS GIRLS

Kent County Treasure Provides for Thousands of Families at Christmas

Arianna VanDoorn, assistant pastor of Park Congregational Church in Walker, founded the Santa Claus Girls organization in 1908 in response to the community’s need to provide for the countless disadvantaged boys and girls who would go without Christmas gifts that year. VanDoorn approached Michigan State Senator Arthur H. VandenBerg, who was also editor of the Grand Rapids Herald at the time. He agreed to sponsor the efforts.

VanDoorn mobilized other Sunday school teachers to invest in the project as well, and they raised $85 to supply gifts to 150 boys and girls that year. Santa Claus Girls has evolved and grown into an organization whose ambitious mission is to see that every child in Kent County is provided with a gift on Christmas morning. A decade ago, it provided gifts to over 11,721 children; this year, Santa Claus Girls expects to serve around 15,000 individuals in the Kent County area. While the increasing need is cause for concern, the organization’s ability to respond to consistently higher demands is a testament to its commitment to this cause.

In addition to sponsorships from the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, donations are received throughout the year from newspaper readers. The Family Independence Agency, as well as local churches and schools, provide the names of those in need to Santa Claus Girls.

Typically, the eligible age range is between 1 and 12 years old, but if the household has a child over the age limit who will be the only one in the family not to receive a gift, the organization will make an exception so that everyone is included.

Gifts include a new piece of clothing, a new toy, a book, and hats and mittens. Buying is done throughout the year to maximize seasonal sales and bargains. There are also contributors to this cause who sew quilts and who knit or crochet the hats and mittens. On average, about $35 is allocated to each child’s gifts.

After 109 years of operation, Santa Claus Girls has its delivery method down to a science. With the help of over 300 volunteers, the gifts are wrapped and put in plastic bags in preparation for delivery on the third Saturday of December.

Treasurer Michael Gillis shared his unique connection to the Santa Claus Girls. It all started with his father-in-law, who was a recipient as a child. From age 16, when he got his first job, until his death at 89, he donated to the cause to ensure that others were provided for as he had been.

“In this work, we’re really just reflecting the heart of the community. We are simply a conduit,” shared Gillis. Diane Brown has been the president of the organization for nine years but has been involved for 25. She doesn’t receive any payment for her direction of the organization; instead, all donations go toward the program, with a lean three percent allocated to an auditor to ensure all financials are above board.

Both Gillis and Brown echoed similar sentiments as to why this organization means so much to them.

“We get so much satisfaction from seeing the kids’ faces light up, and the gratitude on the parents’ faces. It’s the joy that everyone experiences that makes this work so rewarding,” said Brown.

Each year, Santa Claus Girls sets a target fundraising goal for the season, which they have always been able to reach. This year, the goal is $200,000. With this important holiday quickly approaching, please visit SantaClausGirls.org to learn how you can get involved or donate to this remarkable mission.

 Santa Claus Girls 3102 Walker Ridge Drive, NW Walker, MI 49544 | SantaClausGirls.org