Secret Santa’s Heart Central 

May 5 / News

Secret Santa’s Heart Central in Santa Rosa busy gathering and wrapping gifts for those in need.

We are less than four days from Christmas.

Inside Secret Santa’s “Heart Central” Wednesday, the holiday gift program’s distribution center at Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village was bustling as volunteers gathered and wrapped holiday gifts for people in need across Sonoma County.

“It feels good to give back to a community that has given me so much,” said Milena Duarte, 25, a volunteer at the center for the past three years. “I love seeing everyone work together to help others. That’s what Christmas is all about.”

The Secret Santa initiative is a 33-year-old program that places Christmas trees in workplaces, organizations or businesses decorated with heart-shaped ornaments bearing the first name of a person in need, along with one or two of their gift wishes.

People choose a heart ornament, or two, then find a gift for the person or people on the ornaments. Letters are also posted on the Secret Santa website that include bigger requests from the agency.

Instead of using Santa’s sleigh to deliver the donated gifts, volunteer “elves” at Heart Central pick up the gifts from workplaces and other sites, wrap them, then distribute them to over 90 agencies, such as the Committee on the Shelterless or Boys & Girls Club of Greater Santa Rosa, which then give the presents to those in need.

This year, about 20,000 gifts were donated via Heart Central for people in need.

Over 15,000 wishes and 317 letters were submitted this year, said Susan Hatch, co-chair of the Secret Santa committee.

The most-requested items are blankets, clothes, food baskets, and gift cards to fulfill basic needs for groceries or gas.

Among the letters, there was a request for warm clothes for a family of six, said Judy Schulz, a Secret Santa volunteer.

“It’s a way for people to connect with those less fortunate in the community,” Hatch said. “It teaches volunteerism and how to take care of others.”

On Wednesday morning, about 20 volunteers moved quickly at Heart Central, unloading donated gifts from cars outside, wrapping gifts and preparing them for delivery.

About 100 volunteers flowed in and out of Heart Central to help for the last two weeks, Hatch said.

During Thanksgiving week, the heart ornaments were dropped off to places across Sonoma County by the program’s “elves.” At the start of this month, they began picking up donated gifts and dropping them off at the center.

On Monday, the Heart Central distribution center was so packed with gifts you could barely walk through, Schulz said. The walls were lined with bicycles — more than 200 were donated this year.

In 2021, gifts donated were similar to this year’s numbers, Hatch said. In 2020, 12,238 holiday wishes were submitted on heart ornaments, but due to the pandemic only 1,200 were adopted, officials said. In 2019, the program gave out more than 35,000 gifts.

The Secret Santa program is a partnership that includes the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership, KZST radio and Friedman’s Home Improvement. The program serves over 20,000 people each year, Hatch said.

“Knowing you’re helping so many people in Sonoma County have a wonderful Christmas and get presents is something special,” Schulz said.


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