Over 80 local children recently received holiday gifts thanks to a Lodi program that’s existed for decades now.
The Lodi Santa Project, headed by Pam Cunningham, an administrative assistant at Lodi Middle School, provided gifts for 85 children in the school district this holiday season. It’s Cunningham’s second year running the program solo, after she took over the reins from Joan Gehrke, who started the project over 30 years ago.
According to Cunningham, Gehrke noticed a need in the community, especially at Christmas time.
“For a lot of kids, it’s a sad time of year for them,” Cunningham said. “Their parents don’t have much money. It’s not always happy for everybody. So Joan wanted to do something, to make a difference, to make Christmas happy for all kids.”
Gehrke began contacting families she thought might be struggling and offered to help with their holiday gifts. From there, the Lodi Santa Project blossomed.
“We’re just trying to put a smile on kiddos’ faces on Christmas Day or however they celebrate,” Cunningham said. “… There’s a lot of different ways people struggle this time of year, from an illness affecting a family to financial trouble.”
Nowadays the program receives referrals from district staff, community members and organizations like Reach Out Lodi. The only requirement to receive assistance from the Lodi Santa Project is that the children are students within the Lodi School District.
When Cunningham connects with families, she asks they send a list of their child’s needs and wants, along with clothing sizes, gender and age. Then she goes out to purchase winter clothing items some may need, like coats and boots, with donation money, to give to families as soon as possible.
Then community sponsors take over. Cunningham matches each child with a donor, who sometimes offer to sponsor multiple children. Each child is assigned a number, so no personal information is shared about the family, except for the recipient’s age and gender.
According to Cunningham, it’s up to the sponsors to determine what items they cross off a child’s list. She encourages donors to purchase a mix of a child’s needs and wants. While some recipients may ask for more than others – Cunningham said some lists are very specific and lengthy, while others simply list clothes – sponsors shouldn’t feel obligated to buy everything. In the event a sponsor doesn’t donate as much, Cunningham will give the family an extra gift card.
“Our sponsors are very generous, very rarely do I have to supplement anything,” she said. “We have a wonderful community and honestly I rarely have to put out a plea for more sponsors.”
Once the gifts are returned, Cunningham schedules times for families to pick up. Since confidentiality is a huge part of the program, she arranges staggered times for parents to retrieve the items so they don’t run into people they know.
“That’s important to me, to help keep it private,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham asks that sponsors do not wrap their presents, in order to let parents be involved in the gift-giving fun.
As far as this year’s recipients, Cunningham said they had about 20 more children to provide for in comparison to last year. While she couldn’t be sure why the increase happened, she speculated it could be due to new families moving into the district, but said each year varies for unknown reasons.
Although this year’s Lodi Santa Project holiday giving has wrapped up, Cunningham said the program continues to help families throughout the year. For example, if a family approaches Cunningham about a student who wants to play a sport but doesn’t have the proper equipment or funds to do so, the service can provide aid. Additionally, the program helps to pay utility bills and sponsor students to go on school trips, along with providing gas cards and groceries to those in need.
Community members donate to the cause in different ways, according to Cunningham. For instance, she recalled a business owner dropping off a stack of gas cards. Others contribute monetary funds. KD’s Bar and Grill hosts an annual golf outing to benefit the project, according to Cunningham.
“It’s amazing to me how people just find me, asking how to help,” Cunningham said.
The best way for people to get involved with the Lodi Santa Project is through donations, as Cunningham does most of the coordination on her own, to ensure confidentiality for families. Individuals can contact Cunningham through a Gmail account – lodisantaproject – or by making donations to the cause at Lodi’s Associated Bank.