Contrary to popular belief, Santa’s helpers come in all shapes and sizes.
They aren’t all knee-high elves, with pointy ears, pitchy voices and bells on their shoes.
Some wear plum-colored pants and bold plaid jackets and speak in deep tones. “We’re your Secret Santas,” bellowed Joe Kriskovich, the director of human resources for the City of Manteca, clutching a bag of gifts.
Others don the utility belt of a police officer, or the radio and regalia of a firefighter. Some are plain-clothed. There is one who requires a prosthetic, a walking symbol of hope and perseverance this holiday season.
On Friday, Santa’s Helpers – this motley crew of volunteers – gathered in the ballroom at the Manteca Senior Center for the fourth annual Angel Tree Project, where presents spilled off the Christmas tree and covered the main stage.
Coordinator Brandy Clark shuffled through the maze of bags blooming with tissue, accounting for every name pulled from the tree.
She looks forward to this season, as hectic as it may be. The Angel Tree Project began four years ago under her watch, and each Christmas since, the community has rallied around its elderly.
This year, 185 seniors received gifts from anonymous sponsors who pulled their name from the center’s tree during the Manteca Tree Lighting ceremony on Dec. 4.
The gifts were wide-ranging, from sweaters to blankets, dish towels to makeup, hygiene products to food. The simple essentials mixed with small treats.
“I feel like we do a lot for the children, but nobody does a whole lot for the seniors,” Clark said, acknowledging a similar charity hosted by Manteca Care and Rehabilitation and Precision Automotive.
“There are a lot of seniors out there that don’t have anybody to come see them. This is their special day, even though it’s not on Christmas Day.”
Carol Lazetera has been volunteering for the Angel Tree Project the last three years, first as a member of SHARPs and now under the auspice of SAFE.
Of the 20-plus volunteers who showed up to deliver gifts in the drizzle on Friday morning, Lazetera was probably the most qualified to speak about the project’s greater purpose.
Not only does it provide at-need seniors with gifts of comfort, but Santa’s Helpers provide a few moments of company too.
Everywhere they go – as long as someone is home – Santa’s Helpers are greeted with a smile or a handshake or words of gratitude.
“Their eyes light up when they see us with gifts,” said Lazetera. “I’m alone, too, and I took care of grandma. I know what it’s like to see someone, to give someone a hug, to see all of that happen – that look – in their faces.”
Lazetera leans over, pulling up her pant leg. Her shoe is attached to a prosthetic, explaining her noticeable limp.
Still, she carries a stack out of gifts out the front entrance of the Senior Center, dodging traffic and stepping over a cord as she goes.
Christmas, she says, is about spreading joy. Not self-pity.
“Someone always has it worse than you.” she said. “I’m an amputee, but there are others that can’t move.”
David Marques coordinated Manteca Fire’s support. Four engines lined the streets outside the Senior Center, each awaiting a bundle of gifts and Santa’s list.
“Some don’t get out of the house and some don’t have families. For us to go out on these deliveries, it feels like we’re making their day,” Marques said.
“They’ll see the fire department and have no idea why we’re here, but once we explain why they’re grateful.”
Some are rendered speechless.
Kriskovich, working alongside Manteca Police Lt. Tony Souza, surprised Irene Powers at her home near the golf course.
“You don’t know how much this is appreciated,” she said, struggling to find the words.
“We’re just glad we could do something,” said Kriskovich, tugging on his plaid jacket before dashing back to his “sleigh.”