Yes, Brooklyn, there is a Santa Claus. His name is Thomas Neve and last weekend, he brought Christmas to nearly 1,000 disadvantaged boys and girls.
The two-day effort began with a spectacular for 600 youngsters at St. Mary Mother of Jesus Church, Bensonhurst, on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 19, and was capped with a Santa-on-Wheels event for over 300 children in Coney Island the following day.
“We call it Operation Christmas Smiles because we want to put a smile on every child’s face,” said Neve. “We make sure every child has a gift and that good Christmas spirit. We want it to be something memorable for them.”
Neve is the founder and executive director of Reaching-Out Community Services, a nonprofit food pantry and social service organization based out of a Bensonhurst storefront. Reaching-Out currently serves over 6,500 low-income individuals and families in 16 neighborhoods.
As an outgrowth of Reaching-Out’s commitment to helping families in need, Operation Christmas Smiles started a decade ago for children served through the food pantry. For the last three years, Neve has also reached out to youngsters from Sheepshead Bay, Flatbush, Coney Island and the Rockaways who were affected by Hurricane Sandy.
This year’s effort was the biggest thus far. Neve estimated the cost at around $8,000, and was proud to have every aspect funded through charitable donations.
“We don’t have a budget in our program for this,” he explained. “This is all done through altruistic individuals and groups. So many people came together to make this happen.”
A major sponsor of this year’s event was The Tablet’s Bright Christmas Campaign, which provides monetary grants to help parishes, schools and organizations like Reaching-Out Community Services to brighten Christmas for the poor and needy in Brooklyn and Queens.
Other key sponsors included The Rotary Club of Verrazano and the Transit Managerial Benevolent Association.
At St. Mary’s, those funds provided for a light-and-snow show starring Santa and two dozen costumed characters, along with carnival fare and games, face painting, a magician, balloon animals and presents for every child.
Seeing the children laughing and enjoying themselves brought a smile to Msgr. Andrew Vaccari, St. Mary’s pastor, who greeted and welcomed guests. Neve publicly thanked the monsignor for donating the space.
Msgr. Vaccari said it has been “an honor and joy to host this Christmas party” over the last several years. He noted that the parish also conducts a monthly collection to benefit Reaching-Out’s food pantry.
“Reaching-Out Community Services helps our families and our community, and we support them because they do it so well,” added Father Guy Sbordone, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Church, Bath Beach, who stopped by the party.
St. Frances Cabrini parish collected $1,000 to support the event, and an individual parishioner matched that sum for a total donation of $2,000.
Financial and toy donations helped families “forget about their troubles and just have a good time,” Neve said.
He also had a team of nearly 75 volunteers helping him run both weekend events. Volunteers did everything from staffing doors and games, to handing out refreshments and gifts.
“It’s wonderful,” said Sandra Ruiz, who attended the party at St. Mary’s with her son and two daughters. The girls loved seeing their favorite characters on stage: Queen Elsa and Dora the Explorer.
“The kids are having a good time and getting the experience of Christmas. It’s something we’ll never forget,” said Ruiz, a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Sunset Park.
This was the first year Elijah Irizarry of Sheepshead Bay attended Operation Christmas Smiles with his twin boys – and said he hopes to return next year.
“The kids get out for the day and they’re happy,” Irizarry said, as identical six-year-olds led him toward carnival games.
Erika Molino also enjoyed her first year as a volunteer at the party. She was called upon to dance on stage and shake hands with the youngsters while dressed as Daisy Duck.
It wasn’t what the retiree expected when she started volunteering at Reaching-Out’s food pantry earlier this month; it was better.
“I love doing this,” said Molino, a parishioner at St. Bernadette Church, Dyker Heights.
Having raised her daughters as a single parent, she understands the struggle parents have to pay bills and put food on the table, much less buy Christmas gifts. She was grateful to be part of last weekend’s festivities, knowing that both events “meant everything” to the children who attended.
“You can see in their faces how happy they all are. This is what Christmas is all about,” she said.