Couple helps community keep every stocking stuffed

ATWATER -- Santa Claus has never read Christmas lists filled with wishes so achingly simple.

Cast aside are the video games, iPods and the other gadgets that dance in kids' heads during December. Instead, hundreds of Atwater and Winton youngsters have asked the North Pole to load Santa's sleigh with socks, jackets and other gifts their parents can't afford.

"When a kid says they want underwear for Christmas, the family is needy," Operation Santa Claus co-founder Sally Ford-Machado sighed.

For the past five years, Ford-Machado and her husband, Bill Machado, have channeled their Christmas spirit to bring holiday cheer to dozens of families and seniors in the Winton and Atwater area.

The two act as Santa's elves and match hundreds of poor residents with businesses willing to buy them gifts from their wish list.

Rather than bridling a fleet of reindeer, the husband-and-wife team load their Chevrolet Avalanche with the donated gifts and discreetly distribute them.

They don't need a glass of milk and a plate of cookies next to the fireplace. The smiles on the kids' faces, pure as freshly fallen snow, are reward enough for them.

Without Operation Santa Claus, she intoned, Dec. 25 would not be Christmas for dozens of local families.

However, as the big day draws closer, 51-year-old Ford-Machado has temporarily closed her appraisal business and is frantically trying to round up more businesses to adopt the remaining seven families, each with a handful of kids.

"I can't imagine sending a letter to a family saying that 'We regret to inform you we don't have the funds,'" she said.

Winter tough on parents

Five years ago, Ford-Machado saw news reports about a Winton family of 10 whose home burned down before Christmas. The mother had heart disease and a tumor, and the family was left with nothing, she recalled.

Rather than buy gifts for her adult children, Ford-Machado decided to use her Christmas money to help the family.

Afterward, she realized that she could make a direct impact on the Atwater community and decided to help more families the next year.

She went to the Atwater Elementary School District so teachers and counselors could select students who come from poor families most in need of help.

School officials were skeptical and wary about handing out personal information, but Ford-Machado said they eventually recognized that the project was legitimate.

Manuel Rodriguez, the district's attendance and family services coordinator, said he's familiar with many of the area's needy families.

The winter, especially this year, can be tough for the families because the husbands used to work in construction, and those jobs are now hard to find.

The wives work at sweet potato plants until they close when the weather chills, he said. "It gets pretty tight for three to four months," 48-year-old Rodriguez said.

Husband Bill Machado said they wanted to design a charity that would make sure presents were delivered to the most deserving families. "This program doesn't get abused," he noted. "It's strictly stuff they need."

Each year, blank wish lists are given to the families so the parents can write down what each child wants and needs. In a letter to the parents, Ford-Machado notes that luxury items like Xboxes and iPods probably won't make it under the tree.

Most of the time, the gifts are much more basic.

One 10-year-old kid wished for a bike and a football, and he said he needs sweaters and socks. Once, a kid's only wish was for his father to get a job.

"That was pretty heartbreaking," she noted.

The wish, however, was granted.

Slow economy

hurts charity

The program has grown from helping 10 people to 300 since its 2002 inception, and this year has been the hardest to find enough sponsors.

It typically costs about $150 to fulfill a family's Christmas dreams, she said, and businesses aren't required to buy everything on the list, which can include bikes or lawn mowers.

The businesses never know the identities of those they're helping because the families remain anonymous to keep them from feeling embarrassed or exploited for needing the help, Ford-Machado explained.

Jim Williamson, who runs a counseling practice with his wife, has donated to Operation Santa Claus since it began years ago.

"If you have enough for yourself then give some back," he suggested. "(It) is a way of saying, 'Thanks for being part of our community,' even if at the moment they're having difficulties."

Besides the generally slow economy, many of the past donors were real estate agents, who are now pinching pennies and careful with their charity because of the area's housing market slowdown, Ford-Machado said.

"My businesses are really hurting," she said. "Some of them aren't even around."

Another big blow came when Save Mart closed its product recovery center on Olive Avenue earlier this year. Each year, Operation Santa Claus would get about $2,000 worth of diapers and personal hygiene products that were damaged, yet still usable.

Now those products, not covered by food stamps, are sold at discount stores and not passed along to the charity.

However, the Atwater-Winton Lions Club gave them $800 from a poinsettia sale to buy presents for families.

This year the Winton Cherish found 38 senior citizens who need help either paying their power bills, buying space heaters and blankets or repairing their home. "Their needs are smaller," she said. "They just ask for things they can't afford."

They've all been adopted, though Ford-Machado is still trying to find more businesses to join the program.

The number of people helped typically doubles each year, though Machado shudders at the thought of trying to manage gifts for 400 people next year. Ideally, she'd like to see a local service group take over the project now that the framework is in place.

"It's draining," she admitted. "It's a good thing, but it's a sad thing."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.