It was all hustle and bustle inside the United Bank of Union branch on Main Street Wednesday afternoon as employees began sorting all of the wrapped presents that had been donated by people around the community for their neighbors in need.
It’s a monumental task organizing this mountain of presents — more than 500 in all — that will be hand-delivered to the families, straight to their front door, by Santa Claus himself and a team of volunteers from the Union Kiwanis Club, but the bank staff find joy in the work.
Actually, everyone does, said Aaron Hall, vice president of the United Bank of Union, member of the Union Kiwanis Club and director of the Angel Tree Program, which is a joint effort between the bank and Kiwanis.
If you think there’s not many people who would eagerly give up an evening just three days before Christmas to deliver presents to strangers, the dozens of volunteers who make the Angel Tree Program possible will surprise you. They have done this for 28 years.
“Coming up here on the night that they all head out to deliver the presents, that’s Christmas for me,” said Mike Elliott, president of the United Bank of Union and a previous director of the program. “It just doesn’t get any better.”
Union Kiwanis Club member Dave Sutton, who volunteers each year to dress up as one of the Santas delivering the gifts, agreed.
“Once you do this a couple of times, they won’t be able to fire you,” Sutton remarked. “They’ll have to get a stick to drive you away.
“It is what makes the Christmas season. I can’t imagine not doing this,” he said.
Paul Schoene’s Vision
It was Paul Schoene, “a gentleman known around this town as Mr. 4-H,” who created Union’s Angel Tree Program in 1988.
“He worked at American Bank, where I started when I first came to town,” said Elliott. “He came to me with this idea that he had. I think there were 12 or 15 families who needed something.”
The program then worked the same as it does today — a Christmas tree was set up in the bank lobby adorned with paper angel slips with written details about gifts to buy for specific people. People from all over town took a slip or two, purchased the requested item, wrapped and returned it to the bank with the angel slip attached to the outside of the package. The week of Christmas, a group of volunteers delivered the presents to the families.
“We just knocked on the door and gave them the presents. They didn’t know we were coming,” said Elliott. “Paul didn’t want anyone to know. But the problem was, a lot of times, the people weren’t home. So we went back to try again and again.”
After a few years, Elliott had the idea to have people dress up as Santa Claus to deliver the presents. They started out with four or five Santas and, as the program grew, so did the number of Santas. Today there are 10 to 12 who deliver the gifts, said Hall.
Elliott credits the Union Kiwanis Club with a big part of that growth. While there have always been a few Kiwanis members among the program volunteers, when the entire club got involved in the early ’90s is when it really exploded.
“Kiwanis really embraced the whole thing,” said Elliott.
“The Kiwanis Club is what makes this really special. We could get the presents and organize them for the parents to pick up here, but the Kiwanis members really make it special by delivering the gifts,” he said.
One of the reasons that volunteers are so committed to the Angel Tree Program is the warm fuzzy feelings they get from helping others this time of year.
For some people, it’s an education in how much need there truly is in their own community. That’s especially true for the children and teenagers who dress up as elves to help the Santas with their deliveries.
“Every year, we would come back with kids crying their eyes out because they didn’t realize what other people had in their lives,” said Elliott, noting there were years they delivered gifts to people who were living with no heat or who lived with a heating source so dirty that the people’s faces were all blackened from soot.
Now some of those kids who helped out as elves years ago have grown up, graduated from college and come back to help, said Sutton. That’s how much of an impact the program made on them.
“To me that’s an added bonus that we never anticipated,” Elliott remarked.
All Kept Confidential
Every aspect of the Angel Tree Program is kept confidential, stressed Hall, who won’t even disclose how he gets the names of the families who will receive gifts.
“All of the families are in the Union School District, which includes Union, Beaufort and Leslie,” is all he would say.
The family names are provided to him and he contacts the families to be sure they are willing to be part of the program, to find out the names and ages of children who are living in the home and, ideally, a few items they need or would really love to receive.
Those are the items that are written on the angel ornaments (blue for boys, pink for girls) that go on the Christmas trees.
There is no identifying information on the angels, said Sutton. People who take the ornaments have no idea for whom they are buying the gift.
The angel will have a number that corresponds to a particular family, and only Hall knows which families are part of the program.
Even the teams of Santas, elves and volunteers who deliver the presents are purposely sent to locations where they are less likely to recognize someone (people from Union are sent to Beaufort homes, for example).
“One of the things I tell my elves and volunteers is, ‘If we go to a house, knock on the door and you see someone in there you know, immediately turn around and go back to the car and wait,’ because that might be embarrassing for them, and we don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” said Sutton.
The program provides three gifts for each child under age 16. This year there are 172 children in the program. Each family also is given a ham (or two depending on the number of family members), which are purchased with funds donated by Ameren UE and Leroy Strubberg and Associates.
Although the number of families helped each year varies, Hall said on average, the program provides for 55 families annually.
All of the presents are delivered the week of Christmas, but figuring out what night to do it is often tricky, said Hall, noting he tries to work around Christmas programs being held at area schools and Christmas break from school.
But the biggest worry, he said, is the weather forecast. “Five or six years ago we had some ice, and one of our Santas fell,” he said.
Finding the families’ homes is easier today than it was in the early years of the program, thanks to GPS technology, but Hall still asks for directions from each family and then, before the night of delivery, he drives to each house to make sure the directions are clear and to snap a photo of the house to give to the drivers, along with the address. That can make finding a house in the dark so much easier, he explained.
Then he organizes the list of homes into geographic order and divides them up into the most efficient routes, so drivers are not wasting a lot of time criss-crossing town.
The day before delivery, bank employees separate and organize the gifts, which also helps to determine if any gifts had been missed.
“We make sure we have at least three gifts per child, and if not, we can fill in with some extra things people donate or there are some local businessmen who donate money to buy anything at the last minute that had been missed.”
“Just because someone took an angel ornament off the tree doesn’t necessarily mean they will follow through,” said Sutton. “And that would be terrible to be handing out gifts to a family and having to say here’s three for you, three for you, but only one for you . . . ”
The presents are divided into bags that are numbered according to the family to whom they are going. It’s very organized, but still there is always a brief period of chaos.
“The night that we go out to deliver is nothing but mass chaos for at least a half-hour getting Santas matched up with drivers and the right bags of presents,” said Hall. “And somebody invariably grabs the wrong bag, so we have to get that straightened out.”
In addition to the drivers, each Santa team also has a “chase” vehicle, that carries all of the gifts that couldn’t fit in the main vehicle.
Each Santa team delivers to around six houses and, on average, each visit is about 10 minutes long, said Hall.
At some houses, the family wants to interact with Santa a lot and get photos, but at others, they prefer just to accept the gifts and say thank you.
“We get maybe six or seven Christmas cards back from kids that night,” said Hall, “and plates of cookies too. Since they know in advance we are coming, they do that, which is really nice.”
After all of the deliveries are completed, the drivers return to United Bank of Union and turn in the sheets they were given with directions, which Hall promptly shreds, leaving no record of which families were part of the program.
Then all of the volunteers and people who helped organize the presents and deliveries meet at Hagie’s restaurant to celebrate, and the bank picks up the tab, said Elliott.
As one of the longtime Santas who deliver presents, Sutton has too many joyful memories of his experience to share here, but a lot of them involve being able to hand a present to a child, by name, and see the excitement on their face.
“I get a list of three or four places that I’m going to go and presents are all bagged up ready for me. Tags are on there, so I know this package is going to a 12-year-old boy, and I can look at the paper we have or an elf will tell me his name is Joseph, so I can pull out the present and say, ‘Why, here’s a package for Joseph,’ ” said Sutton.
Some of the toughest situations have been when Santa showed up to a house to find more children there than he knew to expect. They could be neighborhood kids or cousins or other relatives or friends who happened to be visiting.
“Now Santa’s helpers take some cash along in case there are extra kids there, and they will give them cash to go buy something themselves,” said Elliott.
The cash also comes in handy for Santa to give to someone he feels is deserving.
“I delivered to a home once where there was a child who was probably 20 years old, but he was mentally handicapped, and he still believed in Santa,” said Sutton. “He was so excited, more excited than anyone else there, and Santa didn’t have any gifts for him. But Santa did have some cash, so I got him aside and told him, ‘Because you are older, I know that you can take some money to go buy what you really want.’
“He was so excited, and I was so happy to have something to give to him. Otherwise, Santa looks like a jerk,” Sutton said.
‘A Great Town’
There are dozens of people who contribute to organizing the presents and delivering them, and probably hundreds more who make it all possible by actually buying the gifts, said Hall.
In addition to individuals who may pluck an angel ornament off the trees set up at each United Bank of Union location are groups who support the program — the Union Rotary Club, Union Middle School Junior Honor Society, Union High School Key Club, churches, businesses . . . there are too many people to name, said Hall.
“It amazes me how generous the people in the community are,” said Sutton.
“It’s a great town,” added Elliott.