Grand Forks' Santa Claus Girls remain committed to brightening holidays for families in need

Despite pandemic and closure of retail outlets, group remains committed to providing gifts for local children.

Santa Claus Girls volunteer Darrell Ekberg picks up a box full of Christmas toys to pass to Fisher (Minn.) Public School student Meah Marshall on Monday, Dec. 9, at Grand Cities Mall. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Like many other groups, the Santa Claus Girls are facing extraordinary challenges because of the pandemic, but they are undeterred in their drive to ensure every child in need in the Grand Cities receives Christmas gifts this year.

Among the most pressing challenges is the decline in financial support from individual donors, said Jen Ekberg, vice president of Santa Claus Girls. Some past donors may be unable to give because they’ve lost their job or were furloughed.

“Donations are slow to roll in,” and yet the number of families the Santa Claus Girls hope to help has increased from last year, Ekberg said. “The need is great in 2020, and we foresee that extending into the 2021 season.”

For the first time this year, families in need were asked to sign up online to participate in the Santa Claus Girls program. Without access to Herald offices, where paper forms could be dropped off in person in the past, the online sign-up system was necessary. The Herald's downtown office has been closed to in-person business during the pandemic.

“It was overwhelmingly successful,” Ekberg said, adding that out of roughly 550 families, fewer than 10 needed a paper application because they lacked internet access.


Registration was closed several weeks earlier than planned, because the number of families Santa Claus Girls can accommodate was reached.

Typically, the group raises money for Christmas gift-giving one year in advance, she said. It may be necessary to dip into next year’s funds to pay for this year’s gifts – something its leaders would rather not do.

The organization has set a fundraising goal of $40,000 this year, she said. “If we don’t reach (the goal), we won’t be able to help as many families next year.”

Ekberg has had “quite a few” difficult conversations with families, explaining that they’ll have to be on the waiting list this year, she said, “and it is so hard to hear their stories.”

Fewer volunteers

In “normal” years, the charity marshaled hundreds of volunteers to sort and pack gifts for distribution, Ekberg said. But this year, due to physical distancing requirements in the packing room in the Grand Cities Mall – where 50 or more volunteers could easily work – now only 10 or fewer are permitted at a time.

“This is a concern because we are not sure we can get (gifts for) 1,200 children packed in one day, with so few volunteers,” Ekberg said.

After the Christmas holidays, she and other Santa Claus Girls shop the sales, scooping up bargains on such things as winter caps, scarves, mittens and toys.

The closure of local retail outlets – such as Sears and the Children’s Place in Columbia Mall, Gordmans and Kmart – decreased their purchasing power, Ekberg said. “We can no longer afford to buy the volume (of merchandise) that we need to help over 1,200 children.


“Usually we wait months for the hats and gloves to get to a price point where we can afford them,” she said. “Now they are being bought at a higher price because they are harder and harder to find. We want to keep our money local; we do not want to buy online.

“Losing Kmart hurt, because their general manager would help us order in sets. We need another company to help us do that.”

Engelstad grant

On the bright side, a recent $10,000 grant from the Engelstad Family Foundation has made it possible to equip a second-floor office with furniture and supplies in the Grand Cities Mall.

Until a few years ago, Santa Claus Girls had access to rent-free storage and assembly space in the Herald downtown building, which is now owned by the city.

Since the ownership change, the group no longer has access to frequently used items, such as a scanner, printer, copier, shelving, tables and chairs, Ekberg said. Even the simplest operating needs – printing, copying and scanning – “were costing a fortune” to outsource.

Local business owners also have stepped up to support the Santa Claus Girls.

BigFoot BBQ, located within the Ramada Inn, partnered with the group to host the Charity Drive Up Dinner, which netted almost $1,600, Ekberg said. “It was incredible.”

Other sponsors include Deek’s Pizza, which is donating a large pizza to each family in need, and Badger Dental, which is providing toothbrushes.


This year, the Grand Forks Clinic has procured hand sanitizer bag clips, Ekberg said. The two-ounce, refillable bottles can be clipped to children’s backpacks or parents’ diaper bags.

Several organizations – such as the Riverside Christian School, Community Contractors Inc. and American Crystal Sugar Co. – have committed to providing volunteers to assist where needed.

The Santa Claus Girls organization is led by several dedicated volunteers, some of whom have been actively involved for years.

While some have retired, “the team is still small but mighty,” Ekberg said. Other members are Karen Bjornseth, Kris Wolff, Carol Schneweis, Julie Ekberg, Marisa Sauceda and Theresa Polkinghorne.


The Santa Claus Girls need financial support and volunteers. Donations can be given online at . (Do not open the site that ends in “.org” – that is a different organization that often pops up first in a search, Ekberg stressed. “That organization is not seeking donations this year, so people think we are not seeking donations – which, of course, we are.”) Sorting, packing and delivering begin next week.

For more information about Santa Claus Girls or to sign up as a volunteer, visit .

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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