Volunteering is one way to give back over the holidays. Many groups and organizations need volunteers, especially during the busy holiday season.
One such place is the Massillon Parks and Recreation Department, where volunteers are needed every year to help with answering Santa's letters, making calls from the North Pole and serving breakfast with Santa.
Santa Claus is always busy getting ready for the one day of the year that so many kids around Stark County wait anxiously. In the days before Christmas, Santa receives hundreds of letters from kids asking for gifts suche new puppies, toys or a new brother or sister.
This year, Santa received 97 such letters at the City of Massillon Parks and Recreation Deptartment. Lisa Benton, the department's special events and marketing supervisor, worked with a couple of dedicated volunteers to help Santa answer those letters this year.
"We reply to each child that sends a letter to Santa," Benton said.
"The response is on Santa's special stationery and is personally addressed to each child. We help answer many of the questions the kids ask. It's just one of the many activities we do each year that we hope volunteers want to help us with," she said
Benton said the children who write to Santa ask questions about the reindeer, what Santa's favorite cookie is, how Mrs. Claus is doing and what the North Pole is really like. A few also ask about the elves' names.
"Some of the letters will say they have been good all year. Santa got one letter where the child said he tried his best to be good," Benton said.
Benton often sees letters come from the same children year after year. One child has written Santa a letter every year for the past nine years and the girl also attends the Breakfast with Santa event every year. That event is held at the Massillon Senior Center and is attended by about 90 people adults and children annually.
"We have several of the seniors from the center who volunteer every year to help with the cooking and serving. Plus we have a professional photographer take photos of the kids with Santa," Benton said.
The main reason children write to Santa is to ask for items for Christmas and when Benton and the volunteers respond, they mention the items the child has asked for and explain that Santa will try his best to bring what's on their list.
Benton has gotten letters from children ranging from 3 to 9 years old. She said sometimes the children write the letter and sometimes the parent writes the letter. Occasionally, children thank Santa for an early present such as a baby brother, while others ask for presents for people other than themselves. Some letters tug at the heart strings and bring tears to the eyes.
Page 2 of 2 - "One little girl asked for a new home for Christmas this year. A grandmother had custody of her three grandchildren and was living in Texas in her son's home. The son died and left the grandmother and her grandchildren without a home. They returned to Massillon to stay with a friend while the grandmother looked for an apartment," Benton said.
Santa sometimes receives pictures colored by the children who send him letters. Many come with stickers on them and one letter came with a candy bar just for Santa. Other children will send multiple letters to Santa in the same year. Last year one child sent Santa a Christmas card, a letter, some candy and a picture she had drawn, all in separate letters.
Massillon's parks department has been receiving Santa's letters for 11 years. Benton said the department also needs volunteers to help make calls from the North Pole to children. Parents pay a small fee and can request a call from Rudolph or one of the elves.
"For those thinking of volunteering to help with answering the letters or making the calls, both activities really help bring Christmas home for me. My son is not that little anymore and answering these letters lets me live Christmas through a child's eye every year," Benton said.
Benton is used to helping Santa. She and her family started the Joe Hibbard Memorial Fund in honor of their father. Benton, along with her mother and sister, raise money throughout the year to help provide Christmas gifts for area families. This year they are helping out three local families in need.
"My dad ran the Boys and Girls Club of Massillon for 35 years. This fund helps to help families associated with the Club who are in need," Benton said.
Santa's Mailbox next year will run from Nov. 22 through Dec. 17. The parks department asks that parents send a self-addressed, stamped envelope with each letter.
For those who would like to volunteer next year to help Santa or help with other activities or at other events at the Massillon Parks and Recreation Department, contact Benton at 330-832-1621 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.