Story by Pamela Sleezer, Joint Base Lewis-McChord Public Affairs Office.
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – Pumpkins might still be decorating doorsteps, but it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Santa’s Castle on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Located near the Clarkmoor Child Development Center on Lewis Main, the building’s candy cane decorated columns are a true indicator of the magic happening inside. Through the generosity of donors and volunteers, the nonprofit organization provides free toys and gifts for service members to give their children on Christmas morning.
“There are no strings attached,” Donna Handoe, board president of Santa’s Castle, said. “Everyone involved in this organization does this because we genuinely love being able to spread the joy of the season. By providing toys for their children, we are allowing service members to use that money they would have spent on toys for something else, like bills or food.”
Santa’s Castle has operated at JBLM for the past 29 years, but it remains one of the base’s best kept secrets.
“It is a challenge each and every year to get the word out about what we do,” Handoe said. “We try to participate in events throughout the year so that we can let the community know that we are here, but with a largely transient population it can be difficult.”
Getting the word out is vital for the organization to serve its mission. The more people who know about Santa’s Castle, the more referrals they are likely to receive and families they can assist.
Referrals are accepted between Oct. 2 and Nov. 3, and may be submitted from several sources including a service member’s chain of command, a chaplain or a community agency. The primary focus is for service members in all of the armed services in the enlisted ranks of E5 or below, but higher ranks with four children or more in a family and a financial need can be considered.
Last year, Santa’s Castle assisted more than 1,000 families and provided toys to 2,311 children. That amounted to $386,681 in toys provided to families, and Handoe credited that success to the support the organization has received over the years.
“There are toy collections held on base through toy ruck marches and such,” Handoe said. “But a large amount of donations come from local businesses and organizations, and from private individuals.”
The organization keeps “wish lists” of items on popular online shopping sites and it accepts monetary donations, but Handoe said some donors choose to bring in items they selected on their own. For this year’s event, Handoe said one veteran drove with his spouse several hours to JBLM to deliver a truckload of donations that included $400 worth of winter coats for children.
Santa’s Castle has also received support from other nonprofit organizations. Recently, Project Linus reached out to provide handmade blankets for families with small children.
As the donations come in, volunteers immediately begin to inventory the items and sort them according to age groups. At Santa’s Castle, multiple rooms are dedicated to different age ranges and each room is filled with shelves stocked with toy options for families to choose from. Handoe said volunteers work continuously behind the scenes to keep the shelves filled.
“We want to make sure that each family has the same experience,” Handoe said. “Whether they are the first family to come through or the last, we want everyone to have dozens of toys to choose from.”
When a service member is referred to Santa’s Castle, their names are added to a confidential list. When the referral period ends, those families are given dates and time slots chosen randomly to come to Santa’s Castle where a volunteer “elf” will assist each family as they move through the rooms and select toys for their children.
“That is the most important volunteer role of all,” Handoe said. “The elves will guide service members on how many toys for each age group they can select, and they can help a service member pick a toy if they have trouble deciding.”
Great efforts are made to protect the identities of the service members who receive assistance from Santa’s Castle, and Handoe said all volunteers are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Also, children are not allowed at Santa’s Castle so that the service member can present the gifts to them however they choose.
“It is extremely important to us that we protect the dignity of the service members we are helping,” Handoe said.
While all volunteer elves are encouraged to dress up for the role, any volunteers who are also service members are required to remove their military uniform so that families have the best possible experience while at Santa’s Castle.
Rachel Herrod, communications chairperson for Santa’s Castle, has volunteered as an elf many times in the past few years, and she said each year she finds herself donating more and more of her personal time to the cause.
“Last year, I took off an entire week from work just to be here,” Herrod said. “I’ve never been a part of a program so special and moving as this one. There is no feeling that can match the feelings you get while being here and helping service members be able to give their children a good Christmas.”
The referral season for Santa’s Castle will close on Nov. 3 and recruitment will open that same day for volunteer elves. Elves must have base access and be at least 15 years old. Anyone who would like to sign up as a volunteer or to learn more about donating to Santa’s Castle may contact the organization at 253-966-2355.