Sharon Earley was homesick when she moved to San Antonio from Kentucky in 1985, and as the Christmas season began her loneliness intensified. Since she was a former Red Cross volunteer, her first idea was to seek out a community through serving, so on the suggestion of a friend she showed up at the Elf Louise Christmas Project and started wrapping gifts one night.
Thirty-six years later Earley is still there, now serving as a toy operations manager for the nonprofit, which has been collecting, wrapping and delivering toys to San Antonio children for 52 years.
“So I wrapped [presents] one night, was a checker one night and had a key to the building the third night,” Earley said, recalling her first year at Elf Louise. “It’s hard to be depressed when there are bows flying across the room and Christmas music playing.”
The coronavirus pandemic has had its impact on Elf Louise, of course, but you can’t keep a good elf down. Precautions will continue this year, but the nonprofit and its network of volunteers are looking forward to the return of the full Elf Louise experience, including Santa delivering gifts to children in person.
The Elf Louise Christmas Project is the brainchild of Louise Locker, who was a junior at Trinity University in 1969 when she began to wonder about all the unanswered letters to Santa sitting at the post office. After she convinced the postmaster to let her look at some of the letters and picked out a few that especially tugged at her heart, Locker decided right then that she would find a way to fulfill those kids’ Christmas wishes.
The problem was it was only a few days before Christmas and neither Locker nor her mom, Anne, could afford to buy all the gifts on the children’s lists. After scavenging items from their own home, Locker began carrying the letters around to local businesses and asking for donations, and soon she had collected a free Christmas tree, decorations, gifts and even a donated Santa suit.
Locker, her mom and a few friends spent all night on Christmas Eve delivering the gifts and, around 3 a.m., made the last stop at the home of a 9-year-old girl named Anna, whose letter had particularly moved Locker. The kids scrambled out of bed and stared incredulously at the sight of Santa in their living room.
More than five decades later, a project that started with a few college friends delivering donated gifts to 13 families is now a well-organized, massive year-round effort that delivers gifts to roughly 20,000 children, reaching about 5,000 San Antonio families every December. Every child gets at least two gifts, and, in past years, every gift has always been delivered right to the family’s house by a volunteer dressed as Santa in a full red, fur-trimmed costume, often sweltering in the South Texas heat, and accompanied by an elf.
Executive Director Bill Harrison said the group had to give up the delivery element of the project last year, since the idea of sending a Santa and a helper into multiple homes didn’t seem safe at a time when coronavirus cases were high and vaccinations weren’t yet available.
But otherwise, Elf Louise has weathered the pandemic fairly well, although, according to Earley, the group did see a small dip in toy donations last year because there were no toy collection drives that would have normally happened at parties and events.
This year Harrison said they still weren’t quite sure it was a safe idea to put a bunch of volunteers into the same space for the multiple hours and many days that are required to get all the gifts wrapped, so there will be no wrapped gifts and no Santa deliveries this year, either. Instead, like last year, parents will come to the Elf Louise warehouse at Port San Antonio to pick up the gifts for their children.
But next year, Harrison said, everything could be back to normal, and the Santas cannot wait.
“We have a whole group of what we call our legacy Santas. They’ve been doing it for ‘x’ number of years and they’ll be back next year,” Harrison said. “I don’t know how many calls I’ve turned away because we’re not doing Santa this year.”
In a normal year, the project needs between 450 and 500 Santas to make all of the deliveries without exhausting each volunteer too much, Harrison said. The wrapping and delivery of the thousands of gifts usually is an operation that requires 4,500 to 5,000 volunteers to pull off, but Harrison said he never has a shortage of people.
“Every year that I have been here, for 30 years, we have turned away volunteers,” Harrison said.
Earley has an unlimited supply of stories from her decades at the project that demonstrate just how dedicated Elf Louise volunteers have been over the years, like the time one Santa was making deliveries and a rough road tore up the oil pan on his car. He wasn’t about to let that stop him from finishing his deliveries, so when the tow truck driver arrived, Santa talked him into driving around to the rest of the houses.
Last year and this year have been much simpler and have required far less staffing without the wrapping and delivery. But Santa showing up at the door of a family’s home and putting gifts directly into the hands of eager, excited kids is the heart of the Elf Louise Christmas Project and not something that will ever permanently disappear, Harrison said.
“Two years ago my wife was a Santa, and we walked into the first house and here come these little kids holding on to her legs. She bawled the entire time. The elf, me, had to do all the talking for her because she couldn’t even get a word out,” Harrison said.
Having Santa give the gifts also makes the experience more comfortable for the families, Earley believes.
“Sometimes it’s a little awkward when you show up at someone’s house with something for them, like we’re the people with lots of money,” she said. “But when you have Santa in the equation, you don’t have that awkwardness.”
The original elf, Louise Locker, is not as involved these days, but Harrison said she is still the soul of the project. She decided to focus more on her full-time job as a therapist, but she still raises money and supports the project as much as possible, including the annual two-day radiothon she hosts on WOAI.
The radiothon, on Dec. 3 and 4 this year, raises a huge chunk of the nonprofit’s budget, but the group also gets some big help from places like H-E-B, which opens its Christmas catalog to Elf Louise as early as March every year, giving them the chance to place a hugely discounted bulk order.
Another huge supporter of Elf Louise is Port San Antonio, which for the past eight years has given the group 80,000 square feet of space rent-free. That gift, in particular, has been a huge relief to the organizers of Elf Louise, Harrison said, eliminating an annual time-consuming search for a massive amount of space to rent for two months.
Earley remembers a long list of locations that the group had used for space over the years, including almost every mall in the city, two of which no longer exist, an old Builder’s Square building, and, the most memorable, the Hormel sausage-making plant.
“It will never be a horrible location until it gets worse than that year,” Earley said with a laugh. “It had wonderful parking, it had six loading docks, but you know the movie Saw? You could have filmed it there. There was no way that we could really make that building Christmasy.”
One of the reasons Harrison and Earley believe the San Antonio community has supported Elf Louise so well over the decades is that the group’s all-volunteer leadership team keeps costs down, spending 98 cents of every dollar donated on purchasing and delivering toys.
“We know how to make a dollar stretch until it screams,” Earley said.
Perhaps the biggest blow to the nonprofit this year was the loss of organizer and Treasurer LeAnn Crim, who died of cancer in June. Describing her as his right hand, Harrison said Crim had been a volunteer for 30 years and was an integral member of the Elf Louise leadership.
The support of the San Antonio community and volunteers like Crim keep Elf Louise going strong year after year, Earley believes.
“San Antonio is not a rich community, but they see what we’ve done and they’re with us,” she said. “Everybody sort of gets into the spirit of let’s get the toys to the kids. They’ve delivered in flooding, in really cold weather, or when the Santas are melting. You’ve not lived until you’ve been in a Santa suit when it’s 90 degrees at Christmastime.”