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‘Dear Santa’ documentary features Chicago volunteers who do more than answer kids’ dreams

‘The parents just want to wake up one Christmas morning and to feel like their kids can be like all the other kids,’ Ashley Jones says. ‘If we can provide that and make one day brighter, that’s what matters.’

Chicagoans Jennifer Jones (from left), Matt Beresh and Ashley Jones go over letters to Santa in the documentary “Dear Santa.”
Chicagoans Jennifer Jones (from left), Matt Beresh and Ashley Jones go over letters to Santa in the documentary “Dear Santa.”
IFC Films

The U.S. Postal Service’s “Operation Santa” kicked off its 108th year Friday, and a new documentary, “Dear Santa,” chronicles the good deeds of people around the country who’ve helped make the program a success, including a Chicago organization called There Really Is A Santa Claus.

Matt Beresh, an executive with Mackinac Partners, his wife Jennifer Jones and her sister Ashley Jones, who works at the Goodman Theatre, started There Really Is A Santa Claus in 2002, choosing a few “Dear Santa” letters from the main Chicago post office downtown to respond to.

Their operation has grown into a not-for-profit organization that, thanks to donations, delivers more than $30,000 a year’s worth of gifts to families around Chicago. It has provided gifts to 1,250 people over the past six years.

The Postal Service’s program aims to provide children in need with gifts.

Jennifer Jones says There Really Is A Santa Claus aims to take that a step farther. Though the post office, to protect people’s privacy, doesn’t give its volunteer helpers contact information for families in need, Jones says her group writes a personal response to each letter with the organization’s contact information, asking about what everyone in the household needs, not just the child who wrote to Santa. The post office forwards those letters.

Jones says that allows her organization to deliver gifts that go beyond, say, a toy that a child requests, also delivering larger items like beds, cribs, “even tires for a man who needed them for his car to get to work.”

She says she and her team focus on the usually neglected bin of “Dear Santa” letters that come to the main post office at 433 W. Harrison St. from families with six or more kids.

“That bin is never touched, sadly, and we have the funds to help them,” she says.

Jones says her family’s organization typically “adopts” 30 to 40 families a year.

Hundreds of letters to Santa are sorted at a post office in a scene from the documentary “Dear Santa.”
Hundreds of letters to Santa are sorted at a post office in a scene from the documentary “Dear Santa.”
IFC Films

Every December, “We rent a U-Haul truck and drive around the city to meet up with the families on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd so we can wrap up and enjoy the holiday on the 24th and 25th,” says Beresh, who is Jewish and didn’t celebrate Christmas until he was introduced to Operation Santa while dating his future wife.

Jennifer Jones has been participating since 1994 after hearing about it through a family she worked for as a nanny.

“I knew the good it would do,” says Jones, who says her own sometimes-tough childhood growing up in Indiana made the program resonate with them. “I knew the need was there.”

Ashley Jones says: “We know what it’s like to want and to need. We know what it’s like to go through life and see people having everything be normal. And, for these families, the parents just want to wake up one Christmas morning and to feel like their kids can be like all the other kids they see on TV or in their classrooms.”

Certain letters they can’t forget.

Ashley Jones remembers a teenager who said he needed a laptop so he could do his homework at home rather than at a library, which entailed a walk where he’d have to face gang members.

For Jennifer Jones, the “Dear Santa” writer who most stands out is a woman, referred to in the documentary as “Teresa,” who provides a home to children of young mothers in need. She says the two regularly keep in touch.

Jennifer Jones organizes holiday gift packages in her Bucktown home workshop in the documentary “Dear Santa.”
Jennifer Jones organizes holiday gift packages in her Bucktown home workshop in the documentary “Dear Santa.”
IFC Films

For Beresh, it’s the high school senior who asked for a suit for his graduation. He was the first in his family to receive a diploma. The 18-year-old Chicago Public Schools student, who lived on the South Side, didn’t have an email address. Beresh, whose fourth-grade daughter already had email, that really hit home.

“I was bewildered at the quantity and quality of obstacles that are in front of these families,” he says.

He and his wife live in Bucktown. Starting in November, their home becomes a Santa’s workshop with what he calls the “controlled chaos” of fitting in more than 150 volunteers, working in shifts, to shop, organize and wrap gifts. They have a volunteer coordinator to help manage everything.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed much for them, Jennifer Jones says.

“The donors that are shopping seem to have no qualms about going to stores, and a fair number of people are OK coming over to wrap as long as it’s in line with CDC recommendations,” she says. “We are trying to outfit our garage and under the deck with heaters, similar to what restaurants are doing.”

Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.