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Santa Claus Girls deliver bundles to brighten the holidays for families in need in the Grand Cities

Hundreds of kids will receive gift packages from Santa Claus Girls this year. And among those packages will be gift cards from Deek's Pizza, a Grand Forks company that has been a huge donor to Santa Claus Girls over the years.

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Tyler Kuenzel, owner of Deek's Pizza on North Washington Street, is once again donating more than 600 coupons, for a free large pizza, to Santa Claus Girls.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – Tyler Kuenzel has always had a soft spot in his heart for children in this community – and it’s evident in the many ways he supports kids’ activities through his pizza business.

This year, the owner of Deek’s Pizza is donating more than 600 coupons, for a free large pizza, to Santa Claus Girls to include in the package of gifts that are delivered to the homes of low-income families. The packages are usually delivered by mid-December.

“That’s a huge donation,” said Carol Schneweis, Santa Claus Girls treasurer. “He hands out over 550 to 600 coupons every year without a flinch.”

Kuenzel has been giving this annual donation for about a decade. The coupon is worth about $20.

This marks the 106th year the Santa Claus Girls, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, has been bringing Christmas and holiday cheer to hundreds of children in the Grand Cities. Children ages 12 and younger receive toys, a reading book and coloring book, candy, toothbrush and toothpaste, hats, gloves and socks. Parents or guardians receive wrapping paper and tape.

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This year’s fundraising goal is $45,000, according to Julie Ekberg, president of Santa Claus Girls. There’s more need out there than ever, she said.

“I think this year we’re going to have a record number of kids (who will receive packages),” Ekberg said. “We’re pushing the 1,400 mark. It’s just been crazy – and we have the COVID babies,” born since the start of the pandemic.

The organization relies on donations from individuals and support from businesses.

“There’s so many that help us – it’s just unreal,” Ekberg said.

Giving back to the community

Initially, Kuenzel was approached by Santa Claus Girls board members who asked if he’d be willing to support their project.

“We try to give back to the community as much as we can, and we just thought it was a good opportunity to provide the free pizza,” he said. “Families are struggling this time of year, trying to buy gifts and stuff, and it’s just kind of a nice little additional gift that they can have.”

“I’m grateful they reached out to us,” he said. “We’re grateful that we’re able to do it.”

At first, Deek’s was donating about 200 coupons for families who qualified for the program. “It’s progressively grown every year,” he said.

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This year, about 650 coupons will be distributed, Ekberg said.

“It breaks my heart when you hear stories of kids going hungry, especially around the holiday season," Kuenzel said. "You wouldn’t think we’d have those issues in Grand Forks, but we do.”

Kuenzel and his wife, Kelly, have been providing foster care for children for about six years. They’ve had about 36 kids come through their home, he said.

“And we’ve had kids that we’ve taken into care, their parents couldn’t afford to feed them. … It just breaks my heart when you hear these things.

“So, if we can provide one pizza for them, it’s just a way we can kind of ease the pain of the holiday season, I guess.”

The Kuenzels became aware of the extent of food insecurity in the community when Kelly was working in an after-school program at Winship Elementary School, he said.

“That’s where we started seeing this need in the community. Kids were using school as a way to get fed. She knew they were going home hungry.”

They ended up adopting one of their foster children, adding to the four of their own, he said. The kids range in age from 10 to 4.

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“It’s a crazy Kuenzel house,” he said with a chuckle.

Outside his busy home life, he’s happy his business is able to support worthwhile projects in the schools, he said.

Deek’s Pizza is behind several fundraising projects, such as “spirit night,” when a certain percentage of sales go toward high school football programs. Deek's also designates a portion of pizza sales for parent-teacher organizations and donates pizzas for “turkey bingo” events at schools.

For the second consecutive year, 100% of sales on the first day of the school year went to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks school systems. School leaders then distribute as they chose, he said. “We’re very big supporters of the school system.”

‘A passion for kids’

Kuenzel’s support for children in his hometown runs deep.  

“I’ve always had a passion for kids in the community,” said Kuenzel, a Grand Forks native who graduated from Grand Forks Central High School and earned a finance degree at UND.

He started working at Deek’s Pizza in the mid-1990s while still in school. In 2005, he and his brother bought the business, he said. They employ about 45 workers here and at satellite operations in Fargo and West Fargo.

Kuenzel exudes high praise for Santa Claus Girls’ dedicated volunteers.

“(It’s) an amazing organization,” he said. “What they do, I think, is amazing for the community. …I can’t imagine what the family’s feeling like when they get that gift from the Santa Claus Girls.”

And the feedback he and his staff get from those who come in Deek’s to pick up their pizzas?

“They’re always grateful, I would say,” he said, noting that he and his staff expect to see the coupons show up at their counter.

“In a couple of weeks we’ll be getting lots of them back.”

How to donate to Santa Claus Girls: 

Go to www.SantaClausGirls.com

Or, call (701) 740-4900 or email santaclawsgirls@gmail.com

To volunteer, go to https://santaclausgirls.com/volunteer-sign-up/

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Related Topics: CHRISTMAS
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 pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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