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BROWN: With more helpers like this, Santa could take a sabbatical

Gina Ruffolo VanValkenburgh (right) and her Gina's Operation Santa Facebook friends supplied gifts to all 374 students at Octavio Paz elementary school in Little Village as part of the Chicago Sun-Times' Letters to Santa program. She is shown here with assistant principal Shamilya Woods and someone who looks a lot like Santa. | Provided photo

Gina Ruffolo VanValkenburgh began participating in the Chicago Sun-Times’ Letter to Santa program some 20 years ago the way most people do — by taking two children’s letters and fulfilling their wishes.

She’s stuck with it faithfully ever since, even when she moved to Arizona for nine years. Then seven years ago, VanValkenburgh took her commitment to a whole other level.

With the help of her Gina’s Operation Santa friends on Facebook, she began adopting entire classes and later whole schools.

This year, she and her team answered the Christmas wishes of all 374 students at Octavio Paz elementary school in Little Village, her biggest year yet.

Students at Octavio Paz elementary open their gifts provided through the Chicago Sun-Times’ Letters to Santa program at the school’s annual holiday party. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

As if that wasn’t enough, she topped herself by also making sure each of those kids got a new winter coat, hat and gloves. She even brought Santa to pass out the gifts.

The folks at Octavio Paz tell me this stunning generosity prompted squeals of joy from the children — and tears of joy from their parents and teachers who joined in the school’s holiday celebration last week.

They suggested I consider VanValkenburgh for a special thank you.

It’s definitely thank you time at the Letters to Santa program.

Thanks to so many of you, it’s been another very successful year.

Although some schools haven’t handed out their gifts yet, we expect to have served 11,556 children this year, an increase of more than 400 from last year.

That’s 11,556 mostly poor kids who can grow up knowing there was someone out there who cares about them.

Students at Octavio Paz elementary open their gifts provided through the Chicago Sun-Times’ Letters to Santa program at the school’s annual holiday party. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

About 87 participating companies sponsored 5,831 of those children, although let’s be clear that usually involves individual employees at those companies taking responsibility for the letters and spending their own money.

Nearly 1,600 individuals sponsored another 5,725 children by requesting letters online or through the mail.

As only those sponsors can appreciate, they receive fulfillment, too.

We actually had so many people interested in serving as Santa’s helpers this year that we ran out of kids’ letters to send them. That’s not as bad a problem as having more letters than sponsors, but we hope next year to invite an additional 2,000 kids to submit letters to avoid a repeat.

By the way, we’re still accepting cash donations.

From those numbers, you can see it takes a lot of thoughtful, caring people to make the Letters to Santa program work.

Maddie Bretts, 4, was excited to help her mother, Erin, deliver these Letters to Santa gifts to students at Darwin Elementary School. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

And we extend our thanks to every single one of them, whether it’s longtime supporters like VanValkenburgh and her 17-foot truck full of gifts pulling up at Octavio Paz or 4-year-old Maddie Bretts feeling the buzz by helping her mother, Erin, deliver two shopping bags full to Darwin Elementary School.

We appreciate the sort of hands-on commitment that’s involved because many of us at the Sun-Times participate ourselves.

That makes it all the more difficult to imagine taking responsibility for 374 kids, as VanValkenburgh did, even if most of the present-buying was actually performed by her 700 Facebook followers.

VanValkenburgh said her philosophy is simple: Every child should receive a Christmas present.

“There’s so many kids that don’t,” she said, noting that one mother took her aside at the party to thank her because she won’t be able to afford to buy presents for her children this year.

Students at Octavio Paz elementary open their gifts provided through the Chicago Sun-Times’ Letters to Santa program at the school’s annual holiday party. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

VanValkenburgh also noted many of the students were more excited to receive the warm clothing than their toys.

VanValkenburgh, 40, of North Riverside, has three children of her own.

On one hand, VanValkenburgh said she may have reached her limit: the gifts for Octavio Paz completely filled her family basement.

On the other, she’s talking about forming her own nonprofit to try to expand her reach while still participating in Letters to Santa.

“I want to do more for these kids,” VanValkenburgh said.

I can promise you the elves who manage Letters to Santa share that spirit.