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Chico State

Paying Holiday Magic Forward

Wrapped holiday presents pile on a table.
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Every second week in December the University Farm Pavilion holds a toy drive with the assistance from Butte County ChildrenÕs Services Division and other community entities to collect toys for local children in need to help brighten their Christmas season on Wednesday, December 7, 2016, in Chico, Calif.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. It’s because I’ve made it so.

From a very young age, I begged and pleaded to allow it in our home, struggling to convince my hard-working father to spend what little money he earned for our family of 11 on decorations and gifts, as keeping us fed, clothed, and sheltered were higher priorities.

I never knew what “poor” meant, since my siblings never heard that as a definition of our family. We were always clean, fed, dressed, and happy, although our clothes, shoes, and toys were all second-hand or hand-me-downs. My mother had an entire brood to clean and look after. What we lacked in monetary abundance, we had in laughter, love, and many wonderful home-cooked meals.

The truth, however, was that we were economically and financially poor.

Because we were a resourceful bunch, we learned at a very young age that a wealth of holiday treasure was available at our schools around the holidays. Every classroom had a real tree, decorated with baubles and paper chains made by the class, and destined to spend Christmas in a dumpster, after removal before the holiday break.

I like to think we saved them from this fate, selecting the biggest one we could carry home. I still remember the elation I felt hobbling home, carrying our tree, feeling like a thief in the night, knowing that I would be sitting under this very tree, aglow with lights, before the night was done.

Alison Christensen, Lisa Saldano, Holly Ferguson (left to right), staff and faculty helped organize presents at a special reception to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the University’s Needy Children Program at the University Farm Pavilion on Wednesday, December 9, 2015 in Chico, Calif.

I remember these trees as magnificent, beautiful, and grand. In reality, they were small and sparse, as most of the needles had already fallen. To me, once decorated, it would be the most beautiful tree. The tinsel was painstakingly applied one strand at a time, as my father instructed, to make it look like a perfectly icicled piece of art.

I have vivid memories of laying on the sofa, basking in the glow of the colorful lights, admiring the mismatched decorations and glass birds with their missing or sparsely feathered tails and chipped, painted features barely distinguishable, perched proudly on their pristinely tinseled branch. 

I dreamed of having Christmases like the ones I read about in books, with a mountain of gifts placed under the tree. I wondered what it was like to get more than one carefully selected gift from my parents or one homemade gift from one of my talented older sisters. I dreaded going back to school to hear my classmates tell of all the gifts they received, while I reported on my single gift. I was blessed and lucky to receive that one gift, with my excitement drawn out as I watched each sibling open their gifts, hoping it was something I could also enjoy.

For my sixth Christmas, my brothers, sisters, and parents received the most precious surprise from a beautiful, generous family. Though I believed in Santa, I struggled to maintain my belief year after year, seeing the over-indulgence bestowed to other children. Although happy with my minimal and humble gifts, I wondered why our home never seemed to be on his route. I chose to believe it was because our one-bedroom rental lacked a fireplace and chimney.

Nevertheless, on this particular Christmas, I swear I heard jingling bells and hushed whispers in the night, footsteps, and the crinkling of wrapping paper. I forced my eyes to stay shut, not wanting to risk Santa catching me awake, lest he disappear and take with him the trove of gifts meant for our family.

Portrait of Lisa Saldano holding holiday gifts.
Lisa Saldano, holds some holiday gifts in the studio on Thursday, November 21, 2017 in Chico, Calif. Saldano, an administrative assistant in UPD, is a longtime volunteer for the University Needy Children Project. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

My heart pounding in my chest, I nudged my sleeping sister next to me and whispered, “Santa!” We both froze, laying as still as possible, straining to hear something, anything, only to hear silence. I kept saying in my head, “I knew he was real! I knew he was real!”

I felt personally responsible for his visit, since I certainly was the only one praying for it night after night. I don’t know how I slept until morning, but once we woke up and stepped out of our room, I remember seeing perfectly wrapped gifts waiting by the tree for my entire family.

This year, the University is supporting 57 families and 132 children.

At six years old, I had no idea what a needy family was. I certainly would not consider myself being in want or need of anything my entire life. I felt loved beyond measure. I had eight siblings who (in spite of quarreling with and teasing me) would ensure my protection and safety no matter what.

However, a beautiful, loving, and generous couple who understood our need, “adopted” our huge family and made Christmas magical for nine really good kids. Our parents never abused or took advantage of any resources available to them, nor did they ever fail to teach us gratitude and the value of working hard in order to avoid getting anything handed to us without truly earning it. 

I am so thankful for that very special Christmas made entirely possible through the generosity of others. Once I was old enough to realize who our Santa was, I was touched forever. And in remembering the elation and magic of believing in Santa, I knew this was something I would always want to give to children, no matter what. Gratefully, I’ve had that opportunity in my professional career.

Introduced to the University Needy Children’s Program 13 years ago, I have been solely responsible for my department’s involvement in it each year. Those taking part in the project range from Staff Council members to campus employees and students with the drive to help. Each year social workers from Butte County Children’s Services identify needy children and their families to receive some gifts, and then provides a list of first names, ages, and favorite colors, as well as their primary needs and sizes.

These family requests are then matched up with the participating departments at Chico State (historically between 41 and 87 departments each year since UNCP’s inception), and then the magic happens.

This year, the University is supporting 57 families and 132 children. Since the University Needy Children’s Program started in 1990, it has provided for 1,927 families, more than 5,000 children, and over $95,000 in funds for food gift cards.

My passion for the project is reignited every year, and I give from my heart, driven with the desire for these children to feel what that little pig-tailed six-year-old felt. To give magic, belief, elation, and gratitude is my desire for these families.

It’s not the fault of these children to be in need, and they didn’t choose it. But it is a choice that I make freely and without hesitation to feel the joy of making their holiday bright and to help one child doubting Santa’s existence believe, if only for this one Christmas, that he is real. I want to be the story that one child tells as an adult, of that one Christmas when Santa found their home.

Lisa Saldano is an administrative assistant with University Police Department.