To say that the Santa Claus Girls organization has a long history of brightening the holidays for children in this area is an understatement.
The group is celebrating its 103rd year of bringing joy to children who might otherwise find few or no gifts under their Christmas tree.
But now the Santa Claus Girls group itself is in need.
“We really need donations,” said Julie Ekberg, president. “(Last) January was pretty bleak. We didn’t know if we’d continue.
“I can’t stress (enough) how much we need donations,” Ekberg said. “We’ve used up our reserves.”
Last year, the Santa Claus Girls spent reserve funds to make sure every request for assistance was fulfilled, she said.
The money received during this holiday season will be used to buy gifts for Christmas 2020; the buying starts Dec. 26.
“We shop all year round,” said Ekberg, who, with her daughter, Jen Ekberg, comb the post-holiday sales to stretch their buying power to the max.
"If we don’t get hats and gloves by February, they’re gone,” she said.
Ekberg worries about the impact of the closure of stores such as K-mart, Sears, Macy’s and Shopko, which used to be good sources of items at low cost.
The loss of retail businesses, coupled with an aging donor base, fuels the Santa Claus Girls’ concern about its future viability.
“We have aging donors; some have moved away,” weakening their ties to Grand Forks, Ekberg said.
At the same time, “there are more kids in need,” she said.
A few years ago, the number of children in need jumped by 300. While that level of increase has not been repeated, the number is steadily rising each year.
“We had that jump of 300, and we’ve never gone down,” she said.
Last Christmas, about 1,150 kids were served.
Adding to the financial pressure was the loss of access to the Herald building’s basement where toys, games and other gifts were stored at no charge. After the building was sold to the city last spring, Santa Claus Girls had to find another storage area and pay rent for the first time.
“We dug in our heels and found (another) place,” Ekberg said.
The community has been generous in its support of Santa Claus Girls, she said.
“A lot of people donate every year,” she said. “We get a lot of donations from out of state. I bet you they received as a child.”
Some people, who give of their time to sort and pack gift items, “take their child out of school to show the child what it’s like to give to a child,” she said.
Many businesses donate items, or provide them at reduced prices, and volunteer their services or equipment.
This year, coloring books and crayons were on the chopping block, due to budget concerns, but Ekberg’s husband, Darrell, another volunteer, was “adamant” that they be included, she said.
As a result of a social media campaign, “crayons began pouring in.”
“It’s something kids can do after Christmas,” she said. “They’ll be coloring in these books ‘til Easter.”
For the first time, families will receive coupons for a free child’s meal at Culver’s restaurant, thanks to efforts by Theresa Polkinghorne’s daughter who works for the restaurant chain in the Twin Cities. Polkinghorne is a new member of the group’s leadership team.
Whalen’s Moving and Storage has once again stepped up to help move the multitude of boxes from the second-floor storage area at the Grand Cities Mall to an area on the main floor for distribution.
In the former Bingo Palace, now occupied by the Hope Church youth group, gifts will be sorted by gender and age. Volunteers will fill gift bags, based on information on the children in each family.
From that main floor entrance, volunteers will pick up and deliver the gifts to families throughout the community.
Families also can come in and pick up their gift bags in person, Ekberg said, but the delivery service “is such a big bonus for our people.”
They know generally when to expect the delivery, but sometimes no one is home to receive the gift bag, she said.
“If people are not home, it’s not because they don’t care or it’s not important to them. Many of these parents are hourly workers. It may be they had a chance to pick up another shift and they took it. It means being able to put food on the table.”
Some are working more than one job, she said.
Every effort is made to reconnect with the family and deliver the bag later.
Some delivery volunteers receive milk and cookies and the Santa Claus Girls receive thank-you cards from recipients, Ekberg said.
“You know these people are appreciative of what we do," she said.
The leaders of Santa Claus Girls operate with a small but dedicated band of volunteers -- about a half-dozen -- and each one has a specific job that she or he does well, Ekberg said.
"No one is paid," she emphasized. "One hundred percent of donations are used to buy the gifts."
“We work all year long for one week, and then it’s over, because we have to,” she said. “You don’t get to be 103 years old by not wanting to help.”
But volunteers realize that all the effort that goes into carrying out their mission is more than worth it, as they watch families pick up the gift bags on distribution day, Ekberg said.
“When you stand in that room, you just get goosebumps -- to know kids will have something under the tree," she said.
Santa Claus Girls need your help
Checks (made out to “Santa Claus Girls”) may be sent to:
Santa Claus Girls
℅ Grand Forks Herald
P.O. Box 6008
Grand Forks, ND 58206
Or, deliver your donation in person at the Grand Forks Herald, 375 Second Ave. N.
Donate your time to help sort, package or deliver gifts to needy families in this community. Volunteers are needed daily at Grand Cities Mall (in Hope Church Youth Group location, former Bingo Palace):
Dec. 10 -- Sorting (begins at 5 p.m.);
Dec. 11 -- Packing bags (begins at 4 p.m.);
Dec. 12 -- Delivery (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
For more information, call Jen Ekberg, (701) 740-4900.