Brown: It’s never too early for Letters to Santa

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School children across Chicago might have found it somewhat odd in mid-October when their teachers assigned them to write letters to Santa.

Eight-year-old Aide Arambula certainly did.

“I was confused because it was Halloween, and Christmas is after Halloween,” said Aide, a very astute third-grader at Columbia Explorers Academy in Brighton Park.

I completely understand her confusion, and I have an explanation to help put everyone’s mind at ease so they don’t think their teachers are losing it.

These weren’t just any letters to Santa. These were the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust’s “Letters to Santa,” our annual program asking readers to give Santa a hand and make the holiday season a little brighter for thousands of children.

We’re trying to get a slightly earlier start this year in hopes of taking a teensy bit of stress off Santa, who isn’t getting any younger you know, as well as making it easier for his helpers.

OPINION

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So if you’re one of those types that hate getting your holidays out of order, insisting that Christmas wait its turn until after Thanksgiving, we respect your principles. But the toy coupons are already out, and time’s a wastin’!

Last year, Letters to Santa provided gifts to 10,555 children from 56 schools, homeless shelters and other nonprofit organizations. We hope to top 10,000 again this year.

Over years of doing this, I have witnessed firsthand that this is a very worthwhile program.

We’re not just rattling the cup when we tell you that for some of these children it may be the only gift they receive this holiday season. Their principals and teachers always tell us the same thing.

Although most request toys, it’s not uncommon to receive a letter from a child asking for winter boots or mittens or school supplies, or even something for a younger sibling they fear will be left out.

Even for those children whose economic situation isn’t as extreme, I have always found them to be grateful and appreciative.

To give an idea how big an impression it leaves on the kids, I asked four third-graders at Columbia Explorers what Santa brought them for Christmas at school last year. Three of them remembered without hesitation.

“Lego Spiderman,” said Aleph Dominguez.

“I got a stuffed animal,” said Aide.

“A Lalaloopsy doll,” said Ashley Quintana.

And most of them said they took the present home and waited until Christmas to unwrap it, which also tells you something.

Columbia Explorers Academy is a CPS neighborhood school with 1,200 students, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, at 4520 S. Kedzie.

Some people mistake it for a charter school because it has a nice new building that opened in 2001, and school administrators pride themselves on delivering the quality education of a magnet school.

They do so in a challenge-filled environment with large families in which parents work multiple jobs and rely on the school for much more than their children’s educational needs.

I chose to visit Columbia Explorers because the students sent us such good letters. Aide’s letter was particularly well-written.

“Santa, in school I’ve been very proud because I got straight A’s,” she wrote. “So, in the house I’ve been a little naughty. Sometimes I don’t want to do stuff like clean the dishes or take out the trash or even cleaning the whole kitchen, but I promise to get better.”

I’m sure Santa understands, as does Aide’s mom, that getting straight A’s can be pretty exhausting. But it’s always good to try to do a little more to help mom, too.

Many of you already know how to participate in Letters to Santa because you do so year after year, and we greatly appreciate that. We even have companies that adopt entire schools.

But if you’ve never been one of our Santa’s helpers before, don’t be intimidated. It’s pretty straightforward.

Just go online at www.suntimes.com/santa or call us at 312-321-3114 to request one or more of the children’s letters. Then, we’re trusting you to buy a gift for that child in the $25-to-$30 range and make sure it is wrapped and delivered to the school or agency by the deadline, which varies by location.

Admittedly, it’s more work than just sending a check. It’s more rewarding, too, I think you’ll find. But we’re also very happy to accept monetary donations, which help us make sure no child is left out when the gifts are distributed.

At Columbia Explorers, school officials say they keep their fingers crossed that the Letters to Santa program will continue forever.

Forever is a long time, but the first step is to make it a success again this year.

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