Santa’s Workshop helps struggling working families bring Christmas joy - December 19, 2016

Courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana • December 19, 2016

By Lu Ann Franklin, Times Correspondent

GRIFFITH — North Pole cold greeted guests outside Santa’s Workshop Sunday, but inside everything was jolly and bright.

The Lake Area United Way’s first Santa’s Workshop for Struggling Working Families held at the Griffith Family YMCA featured lunch and photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus, activities for the kiddies and an opportunity for parents to choose gifts for their children.

“A very generous donor who wishes to remain anonymous sponsored this event,” said Erin Meisner, relationship manager at the LAUW. “First Midwest Bank donated $750 from fundraisers at all the branches and Jedi’s Restaurant (in Griffith) donated two large boxes of gifts.”

The donations enabled 20 families to participate, each nominated by a variety of organizations including the YMCA, Mental Health America, St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart, Methodist Hospitals and the School City of Hammond.

“Each family received $100 in Santa Bucks for each child. That provided them with between six and 10 gifts per child,” Meisner said. “The parents know what their children like, and they could select from a variety of gifts.”

Nominated by Methodist Hospitals, Jawand and Tyniesha brought their five children, ages 5 to 12, to Santa’s Workshop.

“It’s important to be with your family. It’s nice for people to think of others at this time of year and all the times,” Jawand said. “This brings joy to the kids.”

Participants were not required to supply their last names for privacy reasons.

Emilio, age 3, just started preschool at the Griffith YMCA in October. He attended Santa’s Workshop with his grandmother, Mari, and Aunt Selina, nominated by the YMCA. Although he loved the food and the activities, Emilio didn’t take to Santa at all.

The youngster wouldn’t get anywhere near Jolly Old St. Nicholas. Clinging to Aunt Selina, Emilio screamed and cried rather than make any of his wishes known.

On the other hand, 15-month-old Amari Miller, of Gary, not only agreed to sit in Santa’s lap, he waved goodbye to Santa and Mrs. Claus (aka as Bernie and Susan Bernacki of Hammond) and to Santa’s Elf (Evelyn Harris, LAUW resource development associate).

Amari’s visit to Santa’s Workshop with his mother, Christina Cleveland, and grandmother, Crystal Cleveland of Gary, came about because of a bit of Kismet, said Angie Williams, LAUW director of community impact.

“Erin and I and other volunteers were shopping in Kohl’s in Merrillville. We had four carts loaded with toys and went into Christina’s checkout line,” Williams said.

“We started talking with her as we checked out and learned she was a single mother with a 15-month-old boy, and we invited her to Santa’s Workshop,” Williams said.

For the little boy who loves helping Mom push a shopping cart, Christina selected a child-size shopping cart with toy food inside, a teddy bear, McDonald’s gift cards, a toy truck, books, coloring books and “Scout,” a Leap Frog dog that can read books to Amari.

“This is a blessing,” said Crystal Cleveland as volunteers helped the women wrap the presents.

Volunteers “are the only way we can do this. They are the backbone of what we do,” said Munster resident Kristin Marlow-Kelleman of United for Families Network, an organization facilitated through the LAUW. “We’re wrapping presents and putting them in big plastic bags so they are truly a surprise for the children.”

Three members of the Phelan family of St. John were among the 30 volunteers helping out at Santa’s Workshop.

On Christmas break from Purdue University in West Lafayette, 21-year-old Keller Phelan worked as an elf guiding families to see Santa. Her 25-year-old brother, Quinn, also came from Chicago to volunteer.

“We’ve always had our children volunteer. At Thanksgiving, we’d work at a soup kitchen,” said their mother, Sandie Phelan, director of marketing & development at University of St. Francis in Crown Point.

“It teaches them to give back,” she said.