As a young girl in Grand Forks, Fern Tandberg-Ress knew what it was like to go without.
Christmas might have been just another day for her and her six younger siblings, except for a group of women determined to make it special – the Santa Claus Girls, a local charity that’s been brightening the holidays by distributing toys and other gifts to needy families for 103 years.
“For quite a few years, we received from them and the Salvation Army. That was pretty much it,” said Tandberg-Ress, 72, who moved here with her family when she was in kindergarten. “If it hadn’t been for those two, there wouldn’t have been pretty much any Christmas.”
For several years, from the Santa Claus Girls “we received the hand-knitted items they used to make – hats and gloves and, I think, maybe scarves,” said the Minot native who now lives in Cheyenne, Wyo. “I think people who lived in nursing homes were the ones knitting them then. And we always got candy, nuts and a toy.”
“It means a lot to kids who don’t have much,” she said. “I can’t tell you how much it meant to get those things. That’s why pretty much every year since I left Grand Forks I’ve been trying to send a donation.”
She gives in memory of her brothers and mother.
“We appreciated it a lot,” she said. “It’s important for children to get those things.”
It’s not all about the presents, though.
“Christmas doesn’t have to be all about gifts. I don’t mean to sound like that,” she said. “It’s about Jesus, and Christ being born. But if you’ve never been in that position it’s hard to understand.”
Recently, she read in the Grand Forks Herald that the Santa Claus Girls need financial support to keep providing gifts for children in needy families, she said.
“When I saw how much trouble they were in, I added a second check. I sent (the article) to my two brothers and daughter, and asked them to give, too.”
Supporting the mission of Santa Claus Girls “is very important to me,” Tandberg-Ress said.
“I don’t want to see anything happen to Santa Claus Girls. I’d like to see it continue.”
“If anybody could even give $5 or $10 – if everybody could do something like that, and help them out, that would be very beneficial.”
Tandberg-Ress also donates to charities in Cheyenne, she said, “but it’s more important to me to help my home state.”
“It’s important to remember the people that helped you out and took care of you,” she said.
It was hearing her grandmother, 88, talk about how Santa Claus Girls made Christmas joyful for her as a child, that made Jessica Deck want to support the group’s efforts.
“Before that, I didn’t know about Santa Claus Girls,” said Deck, who grew up in Grand Forks and recently moved back from Boston. “I didn’t realize what it meant until I was older, a young adult.”
When she read in the Herald that Santa Claus Girls needed help moving boxes of toys from a second-story storage area to the main floor of the Grand Cities Mall, she quickly volunteered to give hours of labor to the cause.
Deck, a ‘96 alumna of Grand Forks Central High School, was among a troupe of volunteers who formed a line in a stairwell at the mall last week to pass dozens of boxes out of storage and then cart them to a room from which distribution could take place.
Honoring a founder’s memory
Art Bakken of Grand Forks has been a faithful donor to Santa Claus Girls, too. He isn’t sure exactly how long, but “it’s been 30 or 40 years at least, if not more,” he said. He gives to honor the memory of his stepmother, Jackie Bakken.
“She was one of the founders of Santa Claus Girls,” he said. “She worked her whole life at the Herald. She retired from the Herald.”
She was a longtime Grand Forks resident, he said. “It must have been for 60 to 70 years, for sure.”
Santa Claus Girls has been associated with and supported by the Herald for nearly all of its history.
“I usually I sent them $1,000,” Bakken said. But he recently increased his donation to $5,000.
“They were kind of short last year; they kind of struggled, so I thought, well, I’d give them a little more this year to get them started.”
Bakken gives to other charities, but he feels it’s important to donate to organizations that are helping local residents in need, he said.
He supports Santa Claus Girls “because everything they do is local; the money goes to places it’s supposed to go.”
“There are too many big charities where most of the money doesn’t go where it’s supposed to,” because of high overheard and issues of that sort, he said.
“We have plenty of people here who need help without having to look for them someplace else,” he said.
His own background helps him to identify with families who are struggling to make ends meet.
“I grew up poor,” said Bakken, who was raised at White Shield, N.D. “Our Christmas was you got clothes for Christmas and those were the clothes you wore for the year.”
Being able to help children through Santa Claus Girls “is just great,” he said.
“They get gifts and they get the things they need to survive. Both are important.”
How to give to Santa Claus Girls:
Checks (payable to “Santa Claus Girls”) may be sent to:
Santa Claus Girls
℅ Grand Forks Herald
P.O. Box 6008
Grand Forks, ND 58203
Or, bring your donation to the Grand Forks Herald, 375 Second Ave. N.
For more information, contact Julie Ekberg, (701) 740-8560