Santa’s Castle, a non-profit organization at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, has been helping make Christmases merry for military families in need since 1994. This is done through the generous donations and support of others. However, this year with COVID-19, many fundraisers that normally benefit the cause have been canceled and donations are at an all-time low.
Each year the grass-roots group, which is entirely run by volunteers, hands out Christmas gifts to the children of thousands of military families experiencing economic hardship throughout the Western Washington region. This includes active duty Service Members from within the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, activated National Guard and Reserves.
Volunteers like Shelly Hinzman, who has served in many capacities on the Santa’s Castle Board since 2011 when her active duty spouse was assigned to JBLM, really put their heart into the program, and it shows. Even after his retirement in 2016, Hinzman continues to volunteer her time and efforts.
“It’s magical here and really is my happy place,” said Hinzman. She loves the feeling of giving back to the community and knows the best way to meet people when you arrive at a new duty station is to get out there and lend a helping hand.
“My first year here, I was an elf,” said Hinzman. “I was helping a soldier and I saw him physically relax once he saw what Santa’s Castle is all about. They tear up and they understand that we’re here for them. There’s no shame, no judgment. Once they walk through that door, we just have fun picking out toys. Once that happened, I was hooked.”
Service Members are referred and accepted into the program between October 1through November 9 by their Chain-of-Command. They choose gifts for their children in late November through early December.
The distribution of the presents normally takes place right after the Thanksgiving holiday. The Service Member makes an appointment to come in and choose items for their children, with the assistance of a special Santa’s Castle elf helper.
The entire Santa’s Castle operation is a well-oiled machine from top to bottom, with their busiest season being from August to January. Everything is scanned, inventoried, organized, and efficiently maintained, down to the finest details — just like the North pole, one would imagine.
The shopping rooms are carefully stocked with toys separated and stored according to ages 0-17, and gender, as well as meticulously sorted back-stock areas.
“We keep restocking our shelves and we pride ourselves on the fact that the last person is going to have the same amount of choices as the first person,” said Santa’s Castle Board President, Donna Handoe.
Items are constantly being restocked by a ‘purchasing elf’ who fills last minute inventory gaps, and referrals, up to, and clear through the distribution process.
Although the pick-up time-frame remains the same during the two weeks following Thanksgiving, due to COVID-19 there have been some changes. Volunteers worked hard to reorganize and rethink the system for distributing gifts. “We really had to think this through, because we cannot have a year without Santa,” said Handoe.
This year pick-up will be done in a curbside set-up with specially marked spaces within the Santa’s Castle parking lot. Service members will have filled out a wish list prior to their scheduled pick-up time.
Santa’s Castle elves will do the shopping for them in a sanitary environment, six elves apart, with limited handling of items. In fact, various ‘Santatizer’ stations are set-up for the elves to use throughout the building.
Items will be prefilled, ready for them by the time they arrive, including a variety of stocking stuffers for each child. Elves will try their best to match up wish list items to each child when possible.
The donation of new, and unwrapped toys, books, games, stocking stuffers, coloring books and crayons are collected year-round. Anyone can donate and drop items off during regular business hours by contacting them ahead of time at 253-966-2355. All donations are tax-deductible.
Santa’s Castle also accepts monetary donations in the form of a check, or money order mailed to: Santa’s Castle, PO Box 33877, JBLM, WA 98433, or by making a donation through Paypal.
Some of the items still needed this season include toys for infants and board games, as each family with a child ages 3 and up receives one. Santa’s Castle has its own wish lists at Target, Amazon, and Walmart.
Help spread holiday cheer to the families of our military heroes by making a tax-deductible donation to Santa’s Castle at JBLM.