Founder: How and why Summer Santa is amazing
Twenty years ago, Brad Bradley, then Southlake's municipal judge, invited me to breakfast. I had no outstanding traffic tickets, which is his thing. So I wondered what it was about.
Ours was a conversation over coffee that would eventually change the lives of enough needy North Texas children to fill a major league baseball stadium.
Oh, and there's a million dollars involved here, too.
This is the most wonderful story I can tell you.
“My son wanted to volunteer at a local charity before Christmas, but he was turned away,” the judge began at that breakfast. “Too many volunteers already. He wasn't needed.
“But after the holidays, I saw a newspaper story saying charities were hurting for volunteers. That's not right. So what if we created a charity that reminded everyone that volunteering and giving to children is important all year, not just at the holidays?
“And I thought of a name,” he said. “What if we call it Summer Santa?”
Some ideas are perfect. It was 1997. The Star-Telegram, where I worked, helped kick it off. We started small, but with high ideals.
This was around the time the United Way's national chairman was jailed for spending money on himself for personal luxuries including vacations, homes and even $90,000 for limo service (“I can't afford to be waiting for cabs,” he explained.) He was paid a half-million dollars a year.
What if Summer Santa was the opposite? All volunteer, with no paid staff. No physical office. Money donated goes to our children's programs, not overhead.
We'd aim for a client base of kids who qualified for free or reduced meals at school. We'd be powered by good people working for a great cause. Could it work?
Finding a good charity
Charities have wonderful goals and mission statements. But what is their effect on the community? How do donors know where their money is spent? How do volunteers know they've picked the right cause?
Entering this crowded arena, could Summer Santa make a difference? Could we change the lives of troubled children for the better?
What we do
We began by collecting new toys every spring and donating them to a dozen area charities for summertime distribution. In two decades, we've collected 36,000 new toys and books. No hand-me-downs. We want kids in need — whether it be from poverty, abuse or any other number of troubles — to feel the joy of a new toy.
We host kids each August for a back-to-school clothing spree, first at now-closed Mervyn's, then at our current home, Kohl's. We pair kids with a “chaperone” volunteer parent-and-child team. Each Summer Santa kid gets new school clothes plus a backpack. We've paid almost $200,000 for a total of 2,000 kids.
By year two, we started sending children to summer camps who couldn't afford to go. This became our central mission — to help make smiles and summertime dreams come true.
Campers are recommended by guidance counselors and nurses in six school districts we serve: Birdville, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Grapevine-Colleyville, Northwest, Keller and Carroll.
We've sent 4,300 kids to camps for a week each at a cost of $900,000. And yes, we get bulk discounts.
Campers need physicals. Our volunteer doctor, Peter Sakovich, and his staff have given 2,000 free checkups.
We partner with Artisan Center Theater in Hurst for a theater program. We pay for athletic league scholarships, too.
Summer Santa does this with only a post office box, a website and a toll-free phone number. It's more like a dining-room table operation.
Because we spend almost nothing on marketing, mailings, postage and the like, we rely on word of mouth. Our two biggest supporters, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars, are the Southlake Woman's Club (which hosts amazing Art in the Square) and the mother-daughter teams ofNational Charity League/Southlake (which produces a blowout fashion show). So many other donors, too, have brought us above $1 million in donations.
What makes the difference between a great idea and great success? Texas people power, which I define as an enduring passion to serve others in need. Texans don't get enough credit for this, but this is the essence of a true Texan.
Jenny Waddell, a mom, is in charge of sending Summer Santa kids to camps. This year, she processed almost 300, our record. Cyn Choate is our longtime chairman who works full time at a volunteer job.
Sherri Whitt is our grants writer. Lori Burr is our strategist. Randy White lets us meet in his real estate office.
Since 1997, dozens of other leaders have helped us remain true to our original principles: Keep it simple. Meetings shouldn't last more than an hour. We're not in it for the glory.
Working with school districts and charities, volunteers and donors, Summer Santa has helped more than 42,000 children, enough to fill that stadium. We're mostly invisible. Summer Santa does all the work. We're elves.
I share because of what I've learned about being a true Texan. Volunteerism from the heart is at the core of the culture here. You can have high ideals about the way to do things, and with Texas people power, they can come true.