As a child, Eula Fritz was lucky to receive nearly everything on her Christmas wish list.
“For the most part, I did always get what I asked for,” says Fritz, the director of Santa Monica’s Police Activities League (PAL), an after-school program intended to foster trust between youth and the men and women of the Santa Monica Police Department. “My mother worked very, very hard and always said if you believe in Santa Claus, then there is a Santa Claus.”
But at age 12, Fritz learned the truth about Santa when she saw one of her gifts hidden in the closet. The revelation only made her see how special family is during the holidays.
“When I saw that Atari set in that closet, I knew the truth about Santa Claus and that my mother worked so very hard to give me a great childhood,” she says. “The holidays are very special, and it’s a special time to be with family.”
With that lesson in place, Fritz has been hard at work giving less fortunate kids in Santa Monica the same Christmas experience she enjoyed when she was a little girl.
Many of the more than 300 children enrolled in PAL come from families struggling financially. Whether facing layoffs, higher rents, medical bills or just plain bad luck, they lack the means to give their kids the kind of holiday gifts that can create a lifetime of memories.
That’s where the community comes in. For the 10th year in a row, PAL, Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. and Santa Monica Place, are joining together to sponsor the PAL Best Gift Ever Gift Drive.
“The drive helps to make the holidays a little brighter for those who are less fortunate,” says Kevin Herrera, DTSM’s senior communications manager. “There is no better feeling than the one you get when you help others who are truly in need.”
Started in 2006, the Best Gift Ever Drive collects between 300 and 400 gifts — from bikes, scooters and skateboards to clothes, purses and jewelry — and gives them to PAL members, who are between the ages of 6 and 17.
“The kids get a chance to receive gifts that they actually ask for,” says Fritz. “Most kids, when you think about Christmas time, ask for things like bikes, which these parents can’t afford. This is an opportunity for them to get what they want.”
Every year, PAL asks its members to write a letter to Santa describing what would be the “best gift ever.” Youngsters also must explain why they deserve these gifts. Many of the letters are heartfelt personal stories of how far some children have gone to help their parents, siblings and others.
“Dear Saint Nick, I am just a little sad because my mom was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago and now she can’t work. I would like to use my gifts to get my mom a massage/spa day/clothes,” wrote one 14 year old.
“Also, it’s been really hard for me and my mom … to do stuff together because her body hurts too much.”
Towards the end of the letters, each child lists three gifts ranging from $10 to $50. Some ask for gift cards to Starbucks or the movies. Others ask for gifts for family members.
“Dear Santa, this year has been worse for my family and I,” wrote a 16 year old. “I can tell dad, coming home exhausted everyday from work, [is] concerned about everything. He is a single parent with a daughter in college, one in high school and middle school and his wife in Mexico in hopes of finding a cure for her disease.
“Each day is only another struggle and a long day. That’s why I never take anything for granted. And I’m very thankful for generous people like you! So thank you for bringing so much joy and happiness to kids like me! I don’t ask for much. Just for something that I can have in my pocket. Thank you.”
The letters are then distributed to major sponsors and partners of the program, including DTSM, civic leaders and businesses. Many of those who receive a letter feel compelled to buy the youngster the gift of their dreams.
“Without the community’s support, we wouldn’t have the number of gifts we do,” Fritz says. “With the help of agencies and businesses who have been so generous, we are giving kids gifts that they ask for.”
A week before the annual holiday party — the Holiday Workshop — community members gather with police and firefighters at Santa Monica Place to wrap presents for the boys and girls.
They then store and hide them at PAL headquarters until mid-December, when they are brought out for the Holiday Workshop, where each child is personally handed a gift by Santa.
“There is nothing more touching than to see a child unwrap a gift and watch the expression on her face,” Fritz says. “These children are so happy because they get gifts that they have asked Santa for.
“Some don’t want to open their gifts and wait because these are the only gifts that they will open on Christmas Day,” she adds. “This toy drive has brought joy to so many deserving children. We try to give them our best, and we’re fortunate enough to have the resources to do so.”
For more information on PAL, or to participate in the Best Gift Ever Drive call 310.458.8988 or visit www.smpal.org.
PAL Best Gift Ever Toy Drive
Nov. 5 – Dec. 11, 2015
Donate a new unwrapped gift or gift card!
Santa Monica Police Activities League | 1401 Olympic Blvd.
ICE PAL | Corner of 5th St. & Arizona Ave.
Public Safety Facility, First Floor | 333 Olympic Dr.