Santa's Posse keeps growing

Effort spearheaded by Clark County Sheriff’s Office provides gifts, food to area’s needy

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



Want to join Santa's Posse

Santa’s Posse still needs volunteer help. A gift-wrapping and food box assembly event is set for

5 p.m. Thursday at Columbia Machine Warehouse, 3000 Columbia House Blvd. Enter off Grove Street and drive to the far northwest corner of the parking lot. (An incorrect address for the event appeared in Tuesday’s newspaper.) A light Burgerville meal will be provided.

Volunteers are encouraged to extend the Christmas cheer by bringing a new, unwrapped gift.

Tax-deductible donations are always welcome via website or by check. Visit or mail it to the Santa’s Posse Administrative Office, P.O. Box 410, Vancouver WA 98666.

By the numbers

This year, 725families, including more than 2,200 children, will be helped by Santa’s Posse.

Maggie Mayer found unpacking and sorting mass quantities of Christmas goodies in a Vancouver warehouse pretty fun on Tuesday morning.

But beyond the fun, the 13-year-old paused to think, there was a better reason for pitching in with Santa's Posse.

"It kind of feels nice to do something for people who are less fortunate than me," said Mayer, who lives in Salmon Creek and attends Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School. "If I was one of those people, I'd want somebody to be doing this for us."

Mayer was one member of a big crowd of kids from Our Lady of Lourdes and Seton Catholic Preparatory schools who enjoyed some controlled and virtuous chaos in the sprawling Columbia Machine warehouse in Vancouver's industrial area. That warehouse is the base of operations for Santa's Posse, a huge volunteer effort that's driven by the Clark County Sheriff's Office and a whole bevy of other partners. The point is to bring Christmas joy — meaning gifts, food baskets and personal care items — to families who can't afford any.

Organizer and sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Allias took a break from helping out on Tuesday to say that the whole thing got started nearly two decades ago when patrol officers started noticing extreme need during their normal rounds.

"It started with just a handful of families but word started spreading. Every year, the need has increased," Allais said. Sheriff Garry Lucas eventually enlisted the help of local Rotary clubs as well as Fire District 6. After that, he said, the effort never stopped growing.

Santa's Posse used to routinely raise the ceiling on the number of families it would take on by 50 per year, Allais said; but this year the need and the offers of corporate help jumped substantially, and a whopping 200 needy families were added to the total, he said.

"Last year, we turned away hundreds of people," Allais said. "We hate doing that."

This year, 725 families including more than 2,200 children will be fed and gifted via Santa's Posse, Allais said. The average spending per family is just less than $50.

Three hundred of those children will be getting what may be the most joyous and Christmassy present possible: a new bicycle and helmet. Cash to buy approximately 300 new bikes and helmets was donated to the cause by numerous sources; the boxed bikes were assembled at Columbia Machine by volunteering employees of Waste Connections as well as other volunteers -- including members of the Vancouver Bicycle Club, who brought the skills to get all those gears and brake cables working correctly.

Another 150-plus bikes that were part of the Columbia Machine scene headed to needy families Tuesday afternoon via the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. Waste Connections and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt were accompanied by Vancouver Police escort -- one car -- as they made the bike haul from Columbia Machine to the DSHS office on downtown's Harney Street. And, Waste Connections donated 38 more bikes to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department for its similar "CAROL" program, which brings gifts and food to needy people in east county.

Before he got back to steering carts full of Christmas around busy kids who were similarly engaged, Allais said that he became the organizer of Santa's Posse for a couple reasons. One is that he and his daughters got involved a few years ago and found it gratifying.

The other is a pretty typical — yet unspoken — holiday sentiment: "I get cranky at Christmastime," Allais confessed. "This helps."