Eleven from Stranger Things. Cher Horowitz. Cindy Lou Who. Katniss Everdeen. Elle Woods. Nancy Drew. What do these chicks have in common? They're always saving the day (and have impeccable style). Clearly, not all heroines wear capes. I know one, in particular, who wears a black fanny pack. Every day. When Deb Johns isn't creating 28 new patterns and 11 new styles, fighting crimes of fashion, and defending us from potential faux pas, she's saving Christmas. I know what you're thinking, "Uh...Wrong. That's actually kind of Santa's thing." Well, I'll let you in on a little secret: I know Santa. No kidding, I really do. Because Santa is Deb Waterman Johns.
While living in New York, Deb Johns noticed the post office was leaving out stacks of letters mailed to Santa and started opening the letters after realizing they were sent by under served families nearby. Upon further investigation, Deb learned her company, Fashion Group International, participated in the post office's program for these elusive "Santa Letters" and started off shopping for one family. After moving to DC, she wondered if local neighborhoods were sending letters as well. Lo and behold, Deb started her own Santa delivery with letters from 25 low-income families in the greater DC and Maryland community.
As her own children grew up and began making new friends, having new teachers and participating in different activities, Deb took hold of the opportunity to expand her network of volunteers and, at one point, was accepting up to 300 letters. After the anthrax scare completely disrupted the postal system, Deb converted to fax. The first day of DC public schools marks the start of Santa Letter submissions. Now, everyone knows when Deb is turning on her fax machine and as soon as she does, the letters start pouring in. She describes Santa Letters, today, saying, "It's grown into, like, an urban lore with a multi-generational support system. It's women and men of all ages who have enough to spare."
Deb saw a need to help kids and families celebrate the Christmas holidays the way they should be celebrated, because Christmas should be a special time for everyone. But, she's also very aware of the man power involved with meeting these yearly expectations. Her eyes widen as she shakes her head and laughs, "I'm telling you, it really takes a village to get this job done. But, it's so fun. It's fun to imagine and pick out things for someone you've never met. It's really like being Santa. All of it will always go to someone who needs it more than you, so always ask yourself what you can spare for the next guy."
For Deb, Christmas truly is all about the kids, which really is why Santa Letters are so fun. This year was my first go at choosing a child from a list of families and taking on the role of Santa. I’m going to be honest, the pressure was ON. I chose an 11 year old girl with 4 brothers. I was going to make sure everything I picked out for her was ~cool~ and practical (for carrying out all responsible, sisterly duties). I quickly learned that "cool" and "practical" is a tricky balancing act, especially at the delicate age of eleven when you're on the cusp of entering middle school (I shudder at the thought). I wanted to give her things that would be warm but stylish, feel mature but not read as “mild mannered 26 year old” (ie. present day me), fall in line with school dress code regulations and, most importantly, cause her to sky-rocket into an orbit of joy upon opening Christmas morning.
Needless to say, the shopping experience gave me both anxiety and appreciation for parents everywhere. You want everything to be perfect and will stop at no less (a mindset I should probably integrate into other aspects of my life). Overall, I loved it. I know the first person I’ll be thinking of on Christmas morning will be my 11 year old, kindred spirit. I hope she tears my wrapping to shreds because there’s truly nothing more gratifying than ripping through layers of fresh gift wrap.
Larissa, our Digital Analyst, was a first time Santa Letter shopper, like myself. She also went for the old "something really cool" approach when shopping for her gifts at Target. She chose a teenage boy which she found particularly fun because she had yet to explore "that section" of Target. She's smart and brought her husband, Nick, along for advice and spent a day scouring the racks for "cool teen stuff." This, truly, must be how parents think when Christmas shopping. Larissa describes the struggle as practical and fun, "You're constantly thinking about what he needs verses what he wants. You know you need to get a coat, clothes, and food, but I also wanted to get him fun things."
Larissa remembers how cold it was in DC during the week of our Santa shopping and how much it affected her selection of a good winter jacket. All coats aside, she pulled through with the fun stuff. Though she knows nothing about WWE (with the exception of John Cena, thanks to his recent rise to Hollywood fame & fortune), she got her teen boy a great gift. "So, I got a John Cena action figure. I also like doing the John Cena dance move when I dance," she muses. Ultimately, she recognizes the value in finding a way to help locally: "You can literally see the impact, especially in DC and begin to realize how much the community is affected by income inequality, economic mobility, and gentrification. You're connecting with neighbors, and the greater community, which is so important."
This is the 7th year Elizabeth Bailey, our VP of Partnerships & Business Developments, has participated in Santa Letters (that's a big deal, E-Bay!). You know how the Grinch was born with a heart two-sizes too small? I'm pretty sure Elizabeth had the opposite situation, like, her heart was 10 sizes too big. I'm talking big, ol' Valentine's balloon-sized heart. Santa Letters are right up her alley. In addition to shopping for gifts, she also organizes gift delivery for the SCOUT Team. This year, our Team shopped for 6 families, ranging from 4 to 7 kids in each. For Elizabeth, the delivery is one of the best parts about Santa Letters and says, "Prior to 3 years ago, we, as SCOUT employees, weren't seeing the full process to the end. Then, we were told we could start delivering the gifts to the families ourselves. This has been an awesome way to see everything come full circle."
Elizabeth feels the act of delivering gifts to families is a great way to get out of your comfort zone by visiting different communities and making hands on connections. Putting faces to names makes the experience even more emotional and memorable. She remembers seeing a row of Big Draw backpacks, donated the previous Christmas, neatly lined up against a family's entryway wall and packed for school the next day: "You could see they were definitely using the products in their every day and benefiting from them. It was cool to see last year's gifts while bringing them the current year's gifts. You also realize how appreciative the mothers are and how much they rely on the gifts. You know you're not only serving the kids but the parents too." This year, we packaged each family's gifts in 4 Boys Bags, which are great storage and packing for a move.