Cleta Null doesn’t compare herself to Santa Claus, though she helps provide Christmas gifts to hundreds of area children each year — many of whom wouldn’t have Christmas otherwise.
Null, 78, of Gray Summit, only sees her increasingly popular Adopt-A-Family program as a way to give back for all the gifts God has provided her throughout her life.
“God has been so good,” she said, noting that she has a good family, good health and friends who are almost like sisters. “Everybody needs to pay back.”
The Adopt-A-Family program began at the Agape House in Pacific in 1992. Null, who continues to volunteer at the Agape House, was involved that first year. In 1992, a total of 50 families were helped and all of the gifts were used.
“We’ve never refused to help anyone,” Null said, noting that the program isn’t based on income and doesn’t even ask the families’ income.
“If they take it and don’t need it, the blood is on their hands,” she said. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Null eventually moved the program to her home. As more space was needed, it moved from the upper floor to the basement.
Last year, Adopt-A-Family served 673 families with 2,400 children and 100 senior citizens and nursing home patients. Last year, approximately 200 bicycles were given away.
It is a full-time job, Null said, noting that she collects items all year long and stores them either at her home or in donated storage units.
Null spends so much time working with the program, that she has earned the nickname “Christmas Cleta.”
The season officially begins the first day of September, when stacks of tables are set up in the basement to accommodate all of the donated items.
In October, Null sends a newsletter home with students in the Meramec Valley School District, which she said is very helpful to the program. Parents who need a little extra help can fill out an application and return it to school.
As applications are returned listing needed items and wished-for toys, they are immediately filled. Volunteers wrap all the items and take them back to the school.
Null used to deliver the gifts herself, but now the school holds on to them until a certain “pickup” date. Last year, only one family didn’t pick up their packages on the designated date, she said.
Tables are filled and emptied throughout the season.
In January, the basement is cleaned, and leftover or late donations are put into storage so volunteers can get a jump start on the next holiday season.
“Have you ever seen such a mess?” Null asked, looking around her basement, jam-packed with all new Christmas gifts. But what Null calls a mess is actually a meticulously organized system each of the volunteers knows.
Tables and tables of clothes, stuffed animals, crafts, games, toys and other items line the walls and inside space of the basement.
“This place will be full five times before Christmas,” she said.
On the wall hangs a reminder of what goes into each bag for each child: two to four outfits, T-shirts, underwear, socks, hats, scarves, gloves, a coat if needed, pajamas, dresses for girls if requested, two to three big toys, three to five little toys, stuffed animals, books and plastic toys.
One year, a pastor donated enough Bibles for each child to receive an age-appropriate Bible in their bag.
Even though it’s mid-October, volunteers are already filling bags for children.
“The elves are really busy,” she said. “I’ve got really good workers.”
Of course, no single person or group could handle a job as big as Adopt-A-Family.
Since its inception, Wal-Mart has been the program’s biggest advocate, donating hundreds of bicycles and other items in the program’s span.
When bicycles are returned to Wal-Mart, for whatever reason, they can not be resold. Those bikes go to Null, who picks them up with other items on a weekly route. Originally, only Eureka Wal-Mart chipped in, but now, Null’s route includes Eureka, Ferguson, Manchester, Fenton and Kirkwood.
The Agape House donated a van for Null to use to pick up and deliver items.
“We couldn’t do this without Wal-Mart,” Null said.
A Union man, Roger Collins, fixes anything that might be wrong with the bikes before they are given away.
“I met him by chance,” Null said. “Well, it wasn’t by chance, God had a hand in it.”
One of the most rewarding experiences for Null is seeing a child pick out a bike.
“One cried and said he never had a bike like this,” she said.
Donations also come from Mattel, Toys for Tots, Family Video, area banks, churches and businesses. Several adopt families each year on their own.
People who know what Null does will leave donations on her front porch. Her yard sometimes has so many donated items that, occasionally, people who don’t know Null will stop and ask if she is having a garage sale.
This year will mark Null’s 20th anniversary of working with the program.
Null said she considers herself lucky to spearhead the program. “I can’t believe how rewarding this job is,” she said.
To keep up with the Adopt-A-Family program, Null postpones her own Christmas celebrations until some time in January.
Her own children get mad, she said. “But we can have Christmas in July — what difference does it make?” she asked.
Even after 20 years, the program still improves each year.
“I’m open to anyone’s ideas,” she said.
To Null, the whole program is inspired by the kids.
“You can’t outgive the Lord. The more you do, the more He gives back.”
Null has seen this firsthand, as someone has provided her with a new driveway and garage doors to help accommodate all of the volunteers parking at her home.
“She’s really an amazing person,” one volunteer said. “She’s taught me so much. She taught me to give with no strings attached and that your heart has to be in the right place.”
Once, the volunteer thought about giving up helping with the program. “It gets overwhelming,” she said. “But then I thought, ‘what about the kids?’ ”
How to Help
The program seems to always be in need of size 6, 8, 10 and 12 pants, as well as gift cards for older children.
The program serves children through high school, as well as families with disabled adults.
There are two ways people can get involved. The Adopt-A-Family program can provide those interested with the names of families that can be directly helped by providing food and gifts, or gifts, toys and clothing can be donated for distribution.
Items can be donated to Null’s home, 1463 Highway 100, Pacific, MO 63069, or by calling Null, 636-742-2244, Debbie Kelley, 636-675-0444, or Brenda McDaniel, 636-271-5315,
Items needed include new clothes, toys and gift items for all ages of children. Cash donations also are accepted.
Being active in the community isn’t a new phenomenon, as Null has had her hands in several groups and organizations throughout her life.
“It’s my nature. It’s how God made me,” she said.
Null taught Bible school for 48 years at Lackland Road Baptist Church. When her children were young, she was a Boy Scout leader and a Girl Scout leader.
She also was heavily active in politics. In one room of her home, Null has photos of her with presidents Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as invitations to White House invocations, and a collection of Republican elephant and Democrat donkey political mugs, which mark each president’s swearing in to office.
Null’s political career primarily consisted of knocking on doors, calling people to vote and sending out letters.
In 2008, Null was named the Pacific Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year.
Null loves baseball, especially the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I eat and breathe ’em,” she said.
On the day of the Cardinals’ final game in the NLCS, Null sported a Yadiar Molina shirt to show support for her favorite player.
Even before knowing the outcome of the game, Null said it would be OK if the Cardinals lost, which they did, because the Cards have won quite a bit and won the World Series last year.
“We can’t be greedy,” she said, adding that she feels sorry for teams that don’t often win.
Always a baseball fan, Null went to the World Series in 1982.
She has been to the new stadium to watch the home team play.
Null also has had the opportunity to travel. One of her sons spent some time as a pilot and was able to get highly discounted airline tickets.
She’s flown all over the world, including Switzerland, France, Spain, Scotland, the Rock of Gibraltar and has been to Europe more than five times. The only two places she would still like to visit are Alaska and Israel, she said.
Null continues to substitute teach kindergarten in the Meramec Valley School District.
One of 14 children born to Harry and Irma Gulley, Null grew up in Newburg, Mo. At 16, she married the late Charles “Chuck” Null, the love of her life.
The couple had three children, Michelle Ratliff, Bill and James Null.
In her 50s, Null decided to go back to school. She had promised her father she would go to college, but hadn’t fulfilled that promise yet.
At 57, she graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) with degrees in psychology and political science, as well as a minor in women’s studies.
Her dad, she said, was an inspiration to her.
“My dad, he fed everyone,” she said. “He always said, ‘Don’t let anyone go hungry and help them at Christmas.’ ”
Null said she felt like she was called to be a missionary, but was told she couldn’t’ because of her age. “God called me to be a missionary here,” she said.
As far as advice to future generations on how to live a happy life, Null kept it simple.
“Get everything out of life that you can,” she said. “Help others. Pay it forward.”