By Felicia A. Petro/Senior Reporter
GROVE CITY —
The worst-kept Secret Santa in town has his elves working to bring together another successful Christmas to needy kids and families.
"Everybody in town knows," said Mike Kearns, about the Secret Santa initiative he began with his family in 1994 to help three families anonymously - which has since exploded with donors, recipients and helpers.
"It got big around 1998 and 1999," said the jolly Kearns, chuckling. "This has been going on forever. It's crazy."
After Secret Santa began, "then doctors would tell me 'This person needs help,'" said Kearns, who has worked at Grove City Medical Center for 22 years, where he's the director of purchasing and materials management.
The hospital isn't allowed to use batteries for heart monitors longer than five hours.
Kearns recycles those to "put them in the toys," he added. Secret Santa also spreads cheer by giving their excess toys and large donations to other service organizations trying to help others, like the Mercer County Children's Aid Society in Mercer.
More 10 years ago, the hospital opened its facility to store toys, clothes, shoes and gadgets that come in for the program; and private donors - including Secret Santa himself - store goodies at their homes, he noted. The hospital has put the program under its non-profit status. Families have also received food and food vouchers during the holidays from Secret Santa.
It finds out about people in need from a variety of sources, including Grove City schools, which sends letters to all families in the district that help is available from various organizations during the holidays. Secret Santa gets tips from neighbors and other organizations as well. It has recently picked up some cases from Catholic Charities and AWARE, both in the Shenango Valley, said Kearns, who wants to open up the program to keep it alive. "Let's put it out there."
Locally, Secret Santa compares lists with other groups helping the needy during the holidays - like Grove City Area United Way, Grace United Methodist Church, Grove City Food Pantry, Elephant & Castle Restaurant, Salvation Army and various stores at Premium Outlets giving clothing and shoes like Vanity Fair, Nike and Adidas.
"We make sure there are no crossovers," Kearns said. "We've been doing it so long, we know people in town who are milking it."
The needs are genuine, however. The worst case he's encountered was a single mom living with several children in a trailer heated with a stove.
"Some people have plywood over their windows and no heat," he added, and many don't know they can get utility assistance from the county.
Anywhere from 11 to 83 families have received from Secret Santa annually - and 27 to 186 children, Kearns noted.
"I never counted how many help. There's probably 10 to 20 organizations and 30 to 80 private donors that consistently help," Kearns said, with some along since its inception.
Countless businesses set out boxes for toy donations; others have had private drives or collect toys for the needy all year.
"Some people used to have Christmas parties at their homes and you couldn't get in unless you brought a toy," Kearns said, chuckling. "One year, we had 115 (bike) helmets donated. We even have people who donate gas for deliveries."
If he gets low on resources, all he has to do is make a few calls to his elves for donations or help. "I can pick up the phone and it'll be all ready and put in my truck. I could say tomorrow, 'I can't deliver these and (Grove City) fire department would do it," Kearns said. "It's so easy to do now."
He believes the Secret Santa program is "contagious," he said, and lending a hand is the nature of Grove City, which "has never come up short in the years I've been doing this. Everyone steps up to the plate."
Donations include bikes, which his best friend, Shawn Elder, owner of Ultimate Rentals in Pine Township, collects through the year to fix, upcycle and recycle. Under its Ultimate Sports division, Elder's business also sells and repairs bikes.
Elder is "one of those constant dogs that always helps the needy," Kearns said.
Grove City police donates the stolen and abandoned bikes that have been turned in but never claimed to Secret Santa, which also receives bicycles from friends and neighbors, Kearns added.
Up to 50 bikes could make their way to Ultimate over the year, Elder noted. From those that can be fixed or recycled, "We try to do 15 to 20 bikes to donate," he said.
Kearns' 21-year-old son, Devin, works at the shop. He and bike shop manager, Andy Howat, opened Secret Santa's bike workshop this year to friends and people on Ultimate's email list - And it's brought in a group to work after hours on Monday and Thursday.
"This year we made it a quest to get help from the community to be able to get more bikes done in the time," Elder said. "It makes people feel good, and it gives them a little knowledge on how to fix bikes."
Howat said a bike is given a kind of "tune up." Helpers check the brakes and drive train, and tighten the nuts and bolts for safety.
"We clean and polish them so they shine," he said, adding that bikes from discount stores are often made with cheaper materials and assembled very quickly.
"There's nothing wrong with these bikes, but most people aren't going to buy a good bike for $4,000," added volunteer Tom Bell, a cycling enthusiast and elf at the bike shop for Secret Santa. Others who volunteered have been Mark and Dave Custer, Chad Barr and Gregg Carlson.
The group expects to finish 18 bikes when Christmas rolls around, Elder said. Devin stated that many will go to teens to use for jobs and school.
Devin's been involved with Secret Santa since he was about 3 years old, and his dad's excited that the spirit of it is "rubbing off" on him, he said. "It's kind of like passing the torch. It amazes me that the next generation is picking up the ball."
Right now, "there are little pockets of Secret Santa all over," Kearns added, working on projects for the upcoming holiday. "They're all my elves. I also have my little elves who deliver," he said, making "dump and run" deliveries to recipients.
All presents used to be delivered on Christmas Eve, but deliveries now require two or three days of delivering the week before Christmas, Kearns noted.
"We've got caught a couple of times. I'll say, 'Santa left your stuff at my house.' That's the thrill you get," Kearns said, on why he keeps up the program. "I think it's the smiles of people on their faces. I've seen kids get on a bike with no socks or shoes and go down the street."
"Volunteering cleans the soul. It feels good to do charity work," Devin added. "It's one of those things that feels right," Howat said.
"It's not about me but what I do for the town. I couldn't do an ounce without these generous people. I'm like the Yellow Pages to direct you to it," Kearns said. "It's contagious and I want to see it keep going."
Published Dec. 15, 2012, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.