Samara Fitzgerald is recruiting Santa’s helpers.
No experience is needed — only a desire to make Christmas brighter for underserved children, who might otherwise not get many — or any — presents.
Through her Letters to Santa program, Fitzgerald, a junior at Chapman University, handles requests written by local elementary school children to the Jolly Old Elf himself.
The letters get turned in, and then Fitzgerald and her volunteers do their best to purchase the presents and fulfill the requests of every child.
Last year was the first time Fitzgerald organized the campaign at Chapman. College President Daniele C. Struppa played the role of the big guy in the red suit and delivered the gifts directly to schoolchildren.
The Letters to Santa program falls under the umbrella of Direct Effect Charities, a Chicago-based nonprofit run by her mother, Michele DiGiacomo.
Fitzgerald, who is also from Chicago, was in fifth-grade when she started helping her mother answer letters. She has been spreading good cheer to needy youngsters every year since.
“Santa was ruined for me from an early age,” Fitzgerald said jokingly, referring the countless hours she’s spent with the Letters to Santa campaign for about the past 10 years.
One letter that stands out came in 2014 from a 13-year-old boy living in a crime-ridden neighborhood whose only request was for Santa to keep him safe.
The letter wound up on the desk of then-President Obama, who replied to the boy. Donated presents came in from everywhere and were delivered to the boy’s home.
Fitzgerald decided to launch the program locally during her freshman year at Chapman after seeing underserved neighborhoods within a few miles of the university.
“When I got here, I just noticed that people have so much to give, and we’re surrounded by so many areas that need what we have,” Fitzgerald said. “I felt like I wanted to channel this into something that can help people. And the fact that the people are so close to us, it just seemed like the right thing to do. It just seemed so clear to me.”
Fitzgerald and her volunteers read letters and provided presents to 1,200 children from Madison Elementary School in Santa Ana.
Since last year’s campaign went so well, Fitzgerald added two more schools this year, Martin Elementary in Santa Ana and Melrose Elementary in Placentia.
That’s 3,000 letters, which translates to at least 3,000 presents.
Needless to say, Fitzgerald needs some help.
Belonging to Chapman’s Pi Beta Phi sorority this year is proving to be an ideal way to recruit donors, Fitzgerald said, since word spread quickly through the other sororities and fraternities that donors were needed.
Social networking, campus-wide emails and word of mouth have also been helpful.
On a recent afternoon, Fitzgerald and a few sorority sisters set up a table in the Attallah Piazza in the middle of campus and a steady stream of students came by to pick up a letter.
Senior Leron Nehemia took two letters.
“I think it’s a really good cause,” Nehemia said. “If I can help any kids who want [presents] and can’t get them, then I’ll get involved and help out and buy gifts. Just being able to help and make them happy on Christmas is rewarding.”
Junior Maecey Malone also took two letters, both written by boys, because she was touched by what they wrote.
“Both of them described how they liked helping out their families at home, and they described friends and family,” Malone said. “One asked for Hot Wheels and a remote-control car, and the other kid asked for Pokémon Teddy Bears.”
Fitzgerald’s goal is to have all the presents turned in by Nov. 29.
Gifts will be stored on campus until it comes time to call on Santa to deliver the presents to each school.
Fitzgerald said there are still piles of letters that need to be read, and she’s reaching out to anyone who wants to help.
Lou Ponsi is a contributor to Times Community News.