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How the Salvation Army Brings Santa's Workshop to South Austin

Jan Gunter

Christmas is fast approaching and Santa’s elves are hard at work – not just at the North Pole, but here in  Austin.

For more than a century, the Salvation Army has been helping with Santa's mission. Back in the 1800s, the Salvation Army’s Christmas mission consisted of delivering food baskets to people who would otherwise go hungry.

But by the 1970s, Austin Salvation Army Major Shannon Winters recalls, the group’s focus turned to toys for children in need. Its humble mission grew into a project that, in Winters’ words, now covers “six thousand children in Austin that are depending on us.”

For over two decades, Winters has made sure her “angels” don’t go without.

Winters gets to work months in advance of Christmas. First, she finds the children in need – like the family of a 16-year-old boy who recently committed suicide. His death left his family emotionally spent and financially strapped.

Once the “angels” are identified, Winters puts their Christmas wishes on a paper ornament that ends up on one of several Christmas trees throughout public places in Austin. Then, people in the community take it upon themselves to buy presents for the “angels.”

During the last few weeks of the operation, things speed up dramatically. As the presents start coming in, Winters recruits volunteers from across the country. (And yes, she calls them “elves.”) They sort, fold, and match the presents with their angel’s wish list.

"Elf" Jackie Crocco came from St. Louis, Missouri to volunteer. Wearing her little elf headband, she tries to learn how Winters processes the presents. She’s amazed at how old-school – but efficient – the operation is. “It’s all manual logistics; there’s no computers,” she says. “You are doing [it] all by yourself.”

Credit Jan Gunter
Workers sort and assemble gifts at Santa's Workshop.

  Volunteering at the Salvation Army’s workshop turns into a cathartic experience for Crocco – the child of a single mom.

“I know what those Christmases are like when you only have one parent and you are waiting for something really great under the tree and it’s not there,” she says.

The warehouse’s once empty shelves quickly fill up. Crocco and a host of other volunteers have finished wrapping and bagging thousands of presents.

This week, families will begin picking up their presents. And then the warehouse will be empty once again – ready for Major Winters to start her mission all over again.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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