"There's nothing like being Santa Claus in full Santa Claus garb, driving down the highway and having cars pulling up next to you just looking," Mark Shapiro said.
For the third year in a row, Mark, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, will dress up as Santa and deliver hundreds of toys the Shapiro family have collected throughout the year to children at the Cathedral Center, an Milwaukee emergency shelter for women and families.
In 2010, the shelter served 934 families, which includes 273 children. Those families make the shelter their home for the night, receive a hot meal, and then go back out on the streets the following day.
"On Christmas Eve, we're not really dropping off needs, we're dropping off wants," Mark explained. "They're getting their needs met by the Cathedral Center — a warm place to sleep, they're getting food...We're dropping off wants that they would never be able to get."
As a Jew, Mark said he never got to experience Santa Claus himself. And when he was asked to play the part, he thought to himself, "Wow, I’ve never gotten to be Santa Claus before and this would be fun."
But Mark doesn't do this alone. His wife, Sharon, and their two daughters, Carli, 13 and Sophie, 11, also help deliver these "wants" to families who are less fortunate. And Mark says the experience for the entire family leaves them all speechless when they drive home each year, regrounded and more connected than ever.
Getting a full experience
Regardless of one's religion, the concept of a Mitzvah crosses all religious boundaries, Mark said. In Judaism, a Mitzvah is the act of doing good for others. But many people only experience half of the Mitzvah, or the good deed.
You donate cans of food to the Hunger Task Force, but you never see the people who receive the much-needed food. You send a blanket to a church that is collecting them for the homeless, but you never see the children's faces when they get something warm and comforting to sleep with.
For the Shapiros, the most moving part of the experience was seeing the completion of the Mitzvah — the full and complete good deed from beginning to end.
"It's the whole idea of fulfilling the caring for another human being that changed," Mark said. "Some of us have never known to want the lacks of life, but these people are lacking their needs in life."
And for his daughters, completing their good deed entirely was what made the experience so worthwhile.
"I always pack the bags of presents, the first part of the Mitzvah, and now I get to do the second part, which is delivering the gifts right to the people I packed them for," Carli said. "The best part is seeing the people's faces light up when you give them gifts."
"It's kind of sad and heartbreaking to know that for some kids the thing that makes their day is a candy cane," Sophie said. "It feels good to know that you are helping people. It is an amazing thing to see the little kids faces light up as you give them presents."
Always something to be thankful for
While everyone is affected in some way by the recession, those impacts vary for every family. Mark said while many people are going through severe hardships, they still have so much to be thankful for.
"The economic downturn made a lot of people who are unbelievably blessed feel like their life has not a lot of blessing to it," he said. "Every year it recalibrates our life, our world. We are an unbelievably blessed family, we live in a very blessed community and sometimes we just drive by and have no idea what's happening. That's happening in our own neighborhoods, in the North Shore."
And when their family passes out those presents, the children and their entire families are crying and saying, "God Bless You." While the same statement in Hebrew, "Baruch HaShem" is used for little more than following a sneeze in the Jewish faith, Mark said that statement has so much more meaning on Christmas Eve to his family and those at the shelter.
"The people there are just amazed by the real Santa who is coming to deliver gifts to them, to their children and just to see these people start crying and blessing him..." Sharon said.
But even more moving for the Shapiro family, was the willingness of the gift recipients to touch, hold hands and hug — even though some of them are victims of severe abuse.
"You're dealing with a group of people who are very emotionally, physically in a really bad place," Mark said. "The amount of touch — everyone wanted to hold hands, everyone wanted to hug, even the adults, who obviously, the adults know that I'm not Santa Clause, but it's the fact that it's Christmas Eve. It's the concept of Santa that's so overwhelming."
The true meaning of Santa
To the Shapiros, Santa is little more than a folk hero, but to other families, especially those in such dire need, he is so much more.
"I went in thinking this was just going to be fun for us, it'd be a chance to give back," Mark said. "I don't think we understood the depth of what we were going to get from it as a family walking away."
While remembering last year's experience at the shelter, Sharon said, "I'm getting chills thinking about it."
While many of the presents are clearly from the dollar store, Mark said the children act as if it's the best gift they've ever received.
"It's extremely emotional, as a human being...to see that," Sharon said.
For both Mark and Sharon, the few hours they donate every Christmas Eve is its own holiday gift.
"For Sharon and I, as parents, especially when you live in an affluent area like this, you're looking for that opportunity to reground your family, even ourselves. You claim you're doing it to reground your kids, but I can promise you that it's much more grounding for us," Mark said.
"We've thought about it and there's no way, if we have an opportunity to keep doing this, that we'd ever stop. I don't think I would ever stop doing this. It gives you a perspective of the world we live in."