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Santa’s Toy Express: How a Colorado Community Rushes in Joy

Stepping off the bus “The day starts at 5 a.m.,” said school bus driver RJ Berry. “We’re cooking breakfast for about 150 people, setting up the garage with tables and chairs—the drivers and paras leave at 6:45 to pick up the kids.”

“Our first ‘sleigh’ is five minutes out,” said Berry, hollering toward more than 100 volunteers in a Christmas-themed warehouse Dec. 6 in School District 49. Not long after daybreak, buses carrying curious children arrived along the facility’s coned-off driveway.

As children appeared, Terry Maloney reached out with her red cotton gloves. Wearing a heart-patterned robe and white-laced nightcap, the bus driver resembled Mrs. Santa Claus.

Lines of volunteers extended, as Maloney paired children with community volunteers, including dozens of high school students. Most sponsors didn’t know why each child joined Santa’s Toy Express, only their need for a boost in holiday joy.

The children were rushed from the cold for a hot breakfast in a colorfully decorated facility. Some laughing, some smiling, many reserved, all reaching toward piles of scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes dripping with syrup.

Santa Arrives Santa Claus, played by volunteer Jim DeGeorge, soon appeared in a fire engine. The retired firefighter had a beard that matched his white colors and cuffs. Carrying a bag of treats, the red-suited man with gold spectacles approached the children with deep, jovial chuckles.

Fifty-one students received a call this year from the “elves” of Santa’s Toy Express. Most of them were 4 to 8 years old, recommended from the district’s elementary schools in northeast Colorado Springs and the Falcon area of El Paso County.

Fifty students attended the Saturday morning activities. The one child who couldn’t attend had experienced a sudden health problem.

“We help families with special circumstances,” said Berry, who started Santa’s Toy Express 13 years ago with several coworkers. The event continues to help children from families facing job losses, terminal illnesses, parent deaths and other troubles.

“We have children who have recently lost a parent, or parents that are down on their luck job wise—we also have Make-a-Wish child this year,” he said.

“We had a child die last year before the program had begun, so we took over $200 worth of presents to the family. The mother was not going to even celebrate Christmas. We were able to work through grandma and assist the entire family.”

After breakfast, the children boarded buses with sponsors and traveled a mile east to Wal-Mart. Many sang Christmas carols along the way, several with Santa Claus. As each sponsor stepped off a bus, Berry wished him or her well with a $40 gift card.

Riding in Carts In the store, the children were riding in carts and holding their sponsor’s hands. While wandering the aisles, they carefully selected presents for their family. They looked over cosmetics, jewelry, housewares and toys. Some budgeted for their pets, too.

Back at “Santa’s workshop,” cookie crumbs mixed with wrapping paper. After storing their gifts, they created ornaments and cards, and visited Mrs. and Mr. Claus. Volunteer Loren Lanckriet presented several shows of magic, tricks he has exercised for deployed troops.

Around noon, buses began taking children home. Buried in their bags, they’d discover several surprises, including a jam-packed, hand-decorated stocking. With a new coat and gloves, they’d find a handmade hat and scarf. There’s a $20 Safeway card for holiday foods.

While he’ll continue to use his business skills and connections to grow the program, Berry says it’ll stay focused on forming 49 exceptional experiences, a tribute to the district.

“There are many ways that people can use their life experiences to assist our community—some have important leadership skills,” said Berry, who retired in 1999, after 30 years in retail, 25 years in store and district manager positions with Kmart.

“I love working with the kids on my bus, and enjoy the interaction with parents,” said Berry. After 10 years as a bus driver, he started transporting students with special needs.

Wrapping Presents “I am trying to stay with one child throughout his time with District 49,” said Berry, referring to a student with Down syndrome who’s now in high school. “I have built a bond with this child and his parents, and actually feel like a grandparent to him.”

Driver Mary Korst has worked with Berry over the past decade. She says he’s known for his eloquent compassion, adding, “He gets people motivated to help others.”

“RJ thinks outside the box,” says Korst. “He comes from the outside in to come up with ideas you wouldn’t believe.”

Finding a Way to Help

Since his first year driving a school bus in District 49, he has recognized a compelling need to assist struggling families. He reflected on how Kmart used to pay for youth to have breakfast with Santa Claus, and then go shopping.

But many children couldn’t attend Kmart’s event due to transportation issues, he said.

“I began thinking that I too could develop something similar to that program but only better,” said Berry. “If the district would help with the buses we could pick up our kids right from their homes.”

As Santa’s Toy Express got busy, Kmart filed for bankruptcy. According to a fiscal year 2002 report, the discount retailer began major restructuring efforts. It closed 283 stores in 2002, and announced the closing of 316 more in 2003.

As a result, many of Berry’s friends at Kmart took management jobs with other retailers. Their career moves would come in handy, as he requested support from various stores.

During the first year, Santa’s Toy Express offered 15 students breakfast and a coat. But after gaining approval to use school buses and receiving generous donations from area businesses, he expanded the program to involve 49 children.

To keep Santa’s Toy Express exciting, he says the district’s transportation team strives to collect $6,000 in donations each year. They coordinate themed potlucks to raise roughly $1,500, and shop year-round for seasonal discounts and clearances.

Santa’s Toy Express has routinely received financial support from Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, Falcon Lions Club, Farmers State Bank and The State Bank. This year, stocking stuffers arrived from Dollar Tree, and craft projects from Home Depot.

What’s more, Air Force Junior ROTC cadets from Falcon High School started volunteering for the weekend event in 2006. In 2012, they pledged $250 annually. However, during the past two years, they’ve contributed $500 by selling cookie dough with a high profit margin.

Santa Claus Berry has a new program that not everyone knows about, yet. A couple of years ago, he was talking with coworkers about teachers using their own money for classroom supplies. Continuing to leverage his retail connections, he’s now trying to stop that.

The program formally started this school year, as he delivered $1,000 in donated supplies to elementary, middle and high schools. Next year, he hopes to better concentrate on exactly what’s needed in each grade level.

“During our lives we become so focused on raising children and making a living that we may not be able to devote much time to helping others,” says Berry. “But as we slow our lives down near retirement, it becomes more important to give back.

“It is never how much people do that counts. It is the importance of knowing that we can give back in some small way. I know I will never change the world, but I can try and make a difference in some child’s life, if just for a day.”

Dustin Senger