By Arlene Edmonds

Special to The CS&T

Shannon Griesser was Santa Claus on New Year’s Eve. In the North Pole tradition, she was distributing toys to needy children. Rather than coming down the chimney and sneaking cookies and milk, the 17-year-old hand delivered wrapped toys to dozens of youngsters. The smiling faces were of North Philadelphia and Fishtown children – courtesy of the 41st Annual Operation Santa Claus, an initiative of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Youth and Young Adults.##M;[readmore]##

This is the fourth consecutive year that Griesser volunteered for the holiday project. Though she serves on the executive council of her school’s community service committee and often volunteers with her parish, Operation Santa Claus is the highlight of her yearly activities.

“I just love the reaction you get from the children because they believe that I am Santa,” said Griesser, a senior at Villa Maria Academy in Malvern. “This year was just great. I have so many positive experiences. Some of the homes have barely any furniture in them, much less toys under the trees. It’s really eye-opening and rewarding.”

“When we went to one house in Fishtown, no one came to the door,” Shannon said. “There were two little children across the street staring at us. They asked if Santa had a gift for them. Since we always have grab bags of additional toys I gave each of them one. Their mother came out and said that was the only gift they were going to get. She thanked us so much. So, I told her about how she can register for the program next year.”

Volunteering on Christmas Eve has become a family affair for the Griessers, members of St. Agnes Parish in West Chester. While many families were doing their last minute shopping, heading to the grocery stores or trimming the Christmas tree, the Griessers were helping make the day special for needy children.

Joseph and Beth Ann Griesser drove down Philadelphia’s inner streets with their teams of four or five adolescents. While Shannon was part of her father’s team, her mother’s team included her sisters, 16-year-old Carolyn and 14-year-old Megan, who were dressed as elves.

Beth Ann Griesser said that it was her husband’s and Shannon’s zeal that sparked her desire to volunteer this year. She readily admitted that her younger daughters needing an adult over the age of 25 to be their team driver was another motivating factor. Now she looks forward to making this an annual effort.

“It is a very gratifying experience,” said Beth Ann. “There was so much energy when we met at St. Joseph’s Prep. It was extremely successful. It was well organized, and the weather turned beautiful. We went to 20 homes and the directions were clear. Our team was even on the 5:30 p.m. Action News, so we had much excitement, and the children and their parents were grateful and happy.”

Operation Santa Claus actually begins in early October, according to Kathy Pfeffer of the Office for Youth and Young Adults. A call is made for volunteers and donors at that time. This year the official Operation Santa Claus kicked off Saturday, Dec. 6 with the opening of the wrap center. Youths and adolescents ranging in age from 9 to 16 volunteered to drape more than 20,000 toys in Christmas wrapping paper, bows and ribbon. There were 164 teams of four to five young people who volunteered their time.

The unwrapped gifts were left at several locations during the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. Collection sites included every Beneficial Bank branch, all of the archdiocesan schools, parishes, private academies and various Delaware Valley area businesses.

“The children who receive the toys are identified in their parishes or through a social service agency,” said Pfeffer. “They are all from the Philadelphia area. We had about 700 families register this year, and we delivered toys to close to 3,000 children. With the other grab bags that were picked up in Chester and Upper Darby and toys that were distributed by some parishes and social service agencies in outside of Philadelphia in Bucks and Chester counties, we distributed about 10,000 toys.”

Volunteer teens, dressed as Santa and his elves, gathered the wrapped toys from St. Joseph’s Prep School in North Philadelphia, St. Martin of Tours School in Northeast Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Newman Center in West Philadelphia around noon on Christmas Eve. By 1 p.m. they began delivering the toys to inspanidual homes of the selected children. Each child received three personally addressed presents that were both age-appropriate and gender-specific.

The event culminated with 900 in attendance at the closing Christmas Eve Mass held at the Drexelbrook Country Club in Drexel Hill. Auxiliary Bishop Joseph P. McFadden was the celebrant.

“It was the volunteers who made this event awesome,” said Pfeffer, who is already refining next year’s toy drive. “They happened to be young or young at heart. There were 164 adults who served as drivers for each team. There were close to another 100 adults who volunteered at the different locations. I think they volunteer because it’s a tradition in some of the families, and some just want to get the rewards of actively participating in a service project.”

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at