WEST SPRINGFIELD — Santa Claus is coming to town, but like everyone else in 2020, he’s going to have to stay socially distanced.
Workers in the Park and Recreation Department are making sure that two of West Springfield’s cherished holiday traditions will continue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Operation Santa, the annual food and toy drive, is proceeding with as little personal contact as possible, and visits to Santa’s House will take place online this year.
Operation Santa typically involves more than 100 volunteers sorting thousands of donations into gift packages, and 50 volunteer drivers delivering the gifts to needy families in town. Santa’s House is a two-week event with personal contact every night. Each has been a fixture of the holiday season in West Springfield since 1980, and that meant “a scramble” this year to reinvent them, said Park and Recreation Director Victoria Connor.
“What can we do? We don’t want to not provide Santa to the community,” Connor said. But “we’re not scheduling and planning our activities six months to a year out, like we’d typically do. We’re modifying and recreating that program on the fly.”
Efforts to minimize personal contact mean that this will be the first year Operation Santa doesn’t use volunteers for sorting and delivery. Instead, the Park and Recreation staff of five people has taken on the task of processing all the donations. Rather than delivering the packages all in one day, the staff will contact each family and arrange a date for pickup.
Connor said she’s been impressed by the generosity of Operation Santa donors during a time when everyone has been affected negatively by the pandemic. Donations of food, toys and funds are coming in as usual from local churches, businesses and private donors. The Kiwanis Club held a successful toy drive last month.
“Sometimes I’m just in awe of how generous people are,” said Connor. “They’re always willing to help out. I know if I said, ‘Hey, I need you down here,’ they’d be here in a heartbeat.”
About 250 families, including 430 children, are served by Operation Santa. Donations cover the $20,000 to $25,000 annual cost of running it.
Although she can minimize the COVID-19 risk by keeping drop-in volunteers out of the Operation Santa sorting room, there was simply no safe way to open Santa’s House at Mittineague Park, Connor said.
Instead, the same Saint Nick who usually greets children at the brightly decorated home at the park’s main entrance will be available for meetings online. For a $20 fee, parents can arrange a 10-minute video call with Santa Claus.
Although they won’t open the doors, the town’s park and maintenance staff did decorate Santa’s House. Connor said many families take their Christmas card photos at Mittineague Park because of the decorated house.
Santa will also continue to answer letters dropped in his mailbox at Santa’s House. There is no charge — children just need to include their return address for a response.
There’s one decades-long tradition that just wasn’t feasible, however: the annual tree lighting and caroling on the Town Common. Mayor William Reichelt said the town canceled the ceremony, which features local school choruses, because of state regulations banning large gatherings, even outdoors. Decorations went up as usual, however.
Reichelt said he’s happy to see the Town Common decorated for the season, but had hoped this would be the year the town could make the downtown area a holiday destination. He said he’s already having conversations with businesses and other town officials about having a downtown evening out, with food, shopping and children’s activities, during next year’s Christmas season.
The West Springfield Police Department “stuff-the-cruiser” toy drives for Operation Santa will be held 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Collin’s Tavern, 997 Westfield St. Donors may bring unwrapped gifts appropriate for any age up to 15.
Gift donations can also be scheduled by emailing [email protected]. Monetary donations are being taken at West Springfield Park and Recreation Department: Operation Santa, 26 Central St., Suite 19, West Springfield, MA 01089. Checks should be made payable to “Operation Santa.”
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