St. Nick fulfills holiday wishes

Johnny Acosta pinged around his room like a pinball as a short parade of "elves" filed past him with big brown shopping bags brimming with colorfully wrapped gifts.

He plopped down right on top of one of the bags, then leapt up. Then plopped back down again. A queen-sized bed near the door took up much of the floor space. A small, undecorated tree stood cramped in a corner.

"I took a picture with Santa!" he told his mom, Sonia Rebkowitz, who moved out of transitional housing not long ago, after graduating from an addiction recovery program..

"We have had a journey," she said.

But 7-year-old Johnny didn't have to go far late Saturday morning to meet the season's most sought-after celebrity.

He had been one of the first kids to greet the man in the suit as he climbed out of his candy apple red convertible parked behind the Costa Mesa Motor Inn.

The elves were DirecTV employees who had helped bring Santa to the motel, which houses many families transitioning out of — or into — homelessness.

Throughout Costa Mesa, families got at least a few of their holiday wishes fulfilled Saturday through the Costa Mesa Fire Department's Santa Letters program.

Santa and a few dozen volunteers descended on families throughout the area bearing gifts donated through the adopt-a-family style holiday drive.

This year the program served 21 families in need referred through various local nonprofits. That's grown from 12 families last year and just about four families when the program started 12 years ago, said program founder Todd Palombo.

Several more kids with their mothers at Costa Mesa's Heritage House recovery home also received gifts.

"We work for Santa," Palombo said as off-duty firefighters sporting hats decorated with holiday ribbons and glittery stickers loaded packages onto a caravan of fire engines and trucks.

What's unique about the Santa Letter program, Palombo said, is that people actually get to meet the families they've adopted.

Costa Mesa fireman Eliasar Maldonado, who helps with community outreach for the program, said that makes a real difference.

"You could see the gratitude and happiness," he said recalling one of his first gift drops about eight years ago. "You create relationships. Some [of the kids], if you see them again, you remember them."

First-time sponsor Lea Lowe said that regardless, helping out those in need lends a sense of perspective.

She said she took her grandkids shopping for some of the gifts she and her husband, Bill, bought for the single father and son they were assigned.

Another unusual feature of the program? Sponsors can catch a ride on a fire truck, with the help of the California Fire Museum, which brought a few old-fashioned engines out for the occasion.

It was before 9 a.m. when sleepy kids and parents trickled into Costa Mesa's Fire Station 4 on Placentia Avenue to help with the delivery.

Shortly after, one of a couple separate caravans rolled up in front of Brenda Marin's apartment off Hamilton Street.

"I said, 'Oh my God, that's a lot of fire trucks,' " she said. While she said she knew Santa Letters volunteers were coming to drop off gifts for her three daughters, she was surprised by the fanfare.

"We're very blessed," she said. "It means a lot."

Nancy Zuniga, who received a crib for her newborn, Ariadne, at the Motor Inn said the experience was "amazing."

She said she can rest easier now that she and her husband, both navigating tough personal transitions, won't need to have the baby sleep with them.

"I got all that I asked for," she said.

Twitter: @jillcowan

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