A Gilbert Walmart store hosted this holiday season’s annual Operation Santa Claus Charity Drive, in which community members donate toys and other gifts in exchange for a chance to win a new car.
Operation Santa Claus is a nonprofit charity that collects donations for many Valley charities, including St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, Special Olympics Arizona, Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), Military Assistance Mission and Chicanos Por La Causa.
The 19th annual drive took place at the Walmart Supercenter at SanTan Village Marketplace in Gilbert on Saturday, Nov. 23. The event was called “Operation Santa Claus – Stuff the Sleigh” and sponsored by ABC15, Sanderson Ford and Sanderson Lincoln.
A large cutout of Santa’s sleigh was outside the Walmart for photos, and children could take photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus as well as a large Coca-Cola polar bear mascot.
Walmart employees were joined by representatives from KNIX 102.5, the local country music radio station; ABC15; Chicanos Por La Causa; SARRC; and Valle del Sol, a local nonprofit focused on inspiring positive change by investing in health and human services, especially for the Valley’s Hispanic community.
The Walmart was busy that Saturday morning, and customers leaving the store frequently approached the Operation Santa Claus bins with just-purchased toys, games, books and food — all to go directly to community charities.
“What we do is, at SARRC, we help the needy families in the Valley with disabilities,” said Addie Mocca, a volunteer coordinator for SARRC for almost 16 years. “A lot of those families can afford services for disabilities, but they can’t afford Christmas.”
SARRC has helped 300 families a year through Operation Santa Claus for the 14 years it has been involved with the cause, Mocca said — more than 4,000 families.
“We collect toys, food, clothes, and then we give them to these families in need just before Christmas so they can have a Christmas,” she said. “Very generous — Valley of the Sun — very generous people.”
As an incentive to donate, Sanderson Ford and Sanderson Lincoln each donated a vehicle — a 2019 Ford F-150 SuperCrew truck and a 2019 Lincoln MKZ luxury sedan, respectively, each valued at more than $40,000 — to go to two lucky winning donors.
The contest asks participants to bring non-perishable foods, new toys, child-sized clothing and money as donations.
“For every donation you make, you get to fill out a slip for a drawing, and then we draw out 50 finalists; each finalist gets a $100 Visa card and a one-in-50 chance of winning a new Ford F-150 SuperCrew or a Lincoln MKZ,” said Max Sirstins, the director of advertising for Sanderson Ford and Sanderson Lincoln for almost 19 years.
Sirstins has been dubbed the “father” of Operation Santa Claus — he has helped organize the drive in various parts of the country since 1986, more than 30 years.
“I’ve done it in California, in Salt Lake City; a couple places in Arizona,” he said. But when I got to Sanderson and took it there, it made a big difference.”
Sirstins said the drive has received broad support from local radio and television stations such as ABC15, 98KUPD, KNIX 102.5, as well as national and international brands like radio station owner Bonneville International; the free broadcast, podcast and radio platform iHeartRadio; and St. Paul, Minn.-based Hubbard Broadcasting.
“It’s the biggest charity drive in the state,” Sirstins said. “The last two years, we’ve raised over $1 million with the value of the toys, clothes, money donations and food.”