Santa’s Posse will help record 500 needy families

Effort provides gifts, food in Clark County

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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This must be what it’s like at the North Pole, big-box factory style.

Shelly Palmer is chatting about this year’s Santa’s Posse, which will help a record 500 needy families with food boxes and gift-wrapped toys.

It’s Thursday night inside the huge space of a shut-down Best Buy store in Hazel Dell, and a friend of Palmer’s walks up.

“Can you give me a job?” asks Jimmé Peters.

Not a problem. Palmer escorts her over to a station along the assembly line for nonperishable food and other necessities. Soon Peters is taking plastic containers of toilet paper apart and putting rolls into large cardboard food boxes.

Palmer, who volunteers to raise donations as a member of Vancouver Sunrise Rotary, is an assistant coordinator of Santa’s Posse but calls herself a “helper bee.”

And it’s kind of an apt description for the hive of activity that’s going on.

The food-box section is a three-legged assembly line of utility tables that starts with empty boxes. As the boxes are pushed along, adults and children take cans of food from flats behind them and put some in each box.

As boxes pass Peters’ toilet paper station, 12-year-old Randy Quick is adding cans of tuna and chicken.

“It’s good for the community,” said Randy, who is a member of Boy Scout Troop 359 in Hockinson. “I think it’s nice for people to do things for other people.”

Box and bag foods go on top later — Froot Loops, Doritos, Stove Top Stuffing, cake mixes, Quaker Oats and more. When the boxes reach the end, folks tape them shut, put them on dollies

and stack them against the wall to await delivery by volunteers on Sunday.

Each family also will get bread and a ham, two for very large families, officials said.

Santa’s Posse started 14 years ago with Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas as King Bee and several of his employees and volunteers. It’s grown over the years.

Now, a number of large donors provide thousands of dollars worth of cash, other donations and volunteers.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Allais, who supervises the Major Crime Unit, has coordinated the drive for the past five years. The 500 families to be helped translates to about 1,500 kids.

He estimated that 250 volunteers were preparing the food boxes and gift-wrapping toys, games and more.

In the toy-wrapping half of the building, parents and children were scissoring, folding and taping away, many wearing Santa and elf caps, as very small children scampered around.

Some were working at tables and others sitting on the carpet.

There were soccer balls, basketballs, footballs, Tonka trucks, dolls, Friendship Bracelets and games including Sorry, Yahtzee and Scrabble.

On the far wall, wrapped presents were stacked in about 30 categories, ranging from “girl infant” to “boy teen.”

Fifty new bicycles of all sizes, only part of donations from Waste Connections, waited for their young riders in a small room.

The Rotary Club of Camas-Washougal held an auction that raised about $4,400, and a sheriff’s pancake feed raised a similar amount, Allais said.

Also helping in various ways were the Vancouver Rotary, Providence Medical Group, Alaska Airlines, girl and boy scouts, the Clark County Skills Center, Fire District 6 and more. Zumiez donated new clothing.

“We’ll be doing our very best to give everyone a jacket,” Palmer said.

The families to receive the bounty, many with unemployed parents hit by the recession, are suggested by schools, Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Corrections.

“We have had to turn down families this year, which is very sad,” Palmer said.

The volunteer group’s website is http://santasposse.com and has a donation link.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.