When my daughter Maxine was 5, I took her to visit Santa as I did every year.
By that year, both she and her 3-year-old sister Madi didn't hesitate before jumping onto Santa's lap to tell him what they wanted. In our house, the girls were allowed to ask for one gift from Santa (I didn't want the old guy to get all the glory for the gifts).
And Santa never let them down.
As we walked away, I asked Maxine what she told Santa. She looked up at me and grinned. "You'll see," she said.
I expected the myth of Santa to last at least a few more years. But here I was, worried that my daughter might not get her Christmas wish. Beyond a late-placed order or two that left me hoping a package would be delivered before Dec. 24, this was my biggest Christmas worry.
Christmas morning Santa delivered the Barbie software she asked for (it's not that hard to shake down a 5-year-old) and Santa lived another year.
I understand how incredibly lucky I am. Many local families are more worried about putting a meal on the table or keeping a roof over their heads than being able to give their children gifts.
At 4 a.m. last Saturday, when the temperatures barely reached into the double digits and the snow was blowing sideways, about 60 people lined up outside the Mortgage Financial Solutions Expo Center on North Nevada Avenue. They were waiting for the doors to open on the annual Bob Telmossé Christmas Giveaway.
The day before the giveaway, Carol Reinert, vice president of the Bob Telmossé Foundation board and Telmossé's partner of 20 years, showed me around the warehouse, where volunteers were busy setting things up. Reinert started the tour with the best part: 1,000 bikes — some new, some used — for kids who win a "lottery." As each child walks in, they grab a marble from a stocking; those who get a red marble get a bike. This year, with lower turnout and more bikes collected, every child grabbed a red marble. (Organizers kept the lottery going, because the kids received such a thrill to win a bike.)
But even when every child doesn't get a bike, no one walks away empty-handed. As families enter the center, parents get a wristband that will be exchanged for a meal that includes a turkey. Children get wristbands for toys and books. It was about 2 p.m. Friday, and Reinert was worried about not having enough for the families who would be lining up the next day. Volunteers were out buying an additional $1,500 worth of toys.
Parents aren't allowed in Olivia's Corner. Here kids pick out a present for their parents, and with help from other volunteers, they walk out with a wrapped present. Reinert wants the kids to be able to give as well as receive. (I might have gotten a little choked up at this point.)
She takes pride in the fact that the families who show up are asked no questions. Everyone is treated with respect (and treated to a dental exam thanks to volunteer dentists on-site). She told me about one woman who left a negative rating on the group's Facebook page one year because instead of getting a bike for each of her five kids, she only received three. But Reinert shrugs it off and focuses on the positive. This year, a family came to volunteer who had been on the receiving side before.
"It's not a big step between that side of the line and this side of the line," she says.
Despite the improved economy, she's seen a general uptick in participants who come for gifts. She thinks it could be from the growth in the city and our military population. But since they don't ask questions, they don't know the circumstances that lead people to the giveaway.
Telmossé died in 2006, but Reinert says it was his dying wish to keep the giveaway going.
"I could strangle him," she joked. She's a forensic psychologist who has to balance court dates and appointments with the three days of setup and preparation for the event.
We talked on the phone one more time at the conclusion of the giveaway. "I hurt in places I didn't know I have places," she said. But even when she should be taking a moment to appreciate a successful giveaway, she's already thinking about next year, when the event will need to find a new location, and plotting to keep this local tradition alive.