Gifts for needy kids: Local group quietly shows how it should be done

The annual solicitation letter from Santa Claus Anonymous arrived in the mail the other day, with its trademark depiction of a classic Santa with his hat pulled over his eyes. The iconic drawing, of course, suggests a fundamental tenet of the 75-year-old organization – poor children who receive holiday gifts never need know they came from charity. Nor do donors need know the names of the children who benefit from their contributions; they merely trust that Santa Claus Anonymous delivers as promised. Giving and trusting in the city of Baltimore – imagine that.

"Supporting Santa Claus Anonymous is an act of truly altruistic generosity," David Blumberg, president of the nonprofit, says on its Web site. "I like to think of it as a belief in people and the spirit of giving."

Mr. Blumberg has something in common with the man who founded Santa Claus Anonymous in 1934 – he's a minority known as Baltimorean republicanus. It was Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a young lawyer and motivational speaker, who came up with the idea during the Great Depression. In its inaugural year, Santa Claus Anonymous raised $800 to provide small gifts to the children of the city's most destitute families.

McKeldin was first vice-president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and at the time he worked for Mayor William Broening as his executive secretary and substitute speaker. He went on to become Baltimore's mayor – a Republican mayor! – in the 1940s, and Maryland's governor in the 1950s. He died in 1974.

Though Santa Claus Anonymous lives on, McKeldin's name is only loosely associated with it. In looking through the local archives, one doesn't get the impression that McKeldin bragged about his generosity and good deeds. By today's standards, of course, that's wholly remarkable – a politician not taking public credit for something.

His role in the establishment of Santa Claus Anonymous is acknowledged on the SCA Web site, but that's about the only place you'll find it. And perhaps that's as it should be, the way McKeldin, a progressive who conceived of the anonymous system of giving, would have wanted it.

After all, a principle of Santa Claus Anonymous is that children from the city's and the region's poorest families need not know their toys came from charity. And their parents or guardians get a little help without feeling embarrassed that they needed a handout. It's a system of charity but also dignity and respect.

Having come from a poor family in South Baltimore, and having had to leave school after seventh grade to help support it, McKeldin understood all that.

So the program works today pretty much as it always has: Social service agencies identify children from 3 to 12 years of age – in better economic times, the age range is 2 to 14 – from households with the greatest need. Their parents or guardians receive certificates for a small gift (games, books, toys or clothing) at local retailers.

The retailers have a partnership with SCA, and, while none of them asked for it, they all deserve mention: Alko Clothing, Cinderella Shoe Store, Crazy Mart, Dann's Family Shoe Store, Economy Shoes, Gallo Clothing, J.J. Discount Store, Jerry's & Jerry's Too!, K Kids, Kiddie Town, Kids Go Round, Rite Aid, Shoe City, Shoe Express, Super Kids Uniforms, Young's Mart and Young Land.

This system has been in place for all these years, overseen by Mr. Blumberg and many other board members who have volunteered for SCA. "We meet once a month in the Roland Park library," Mr. Blumberg says.

There are several annual events that benefit Santa Claus Anonymous and receive notice in the press, but for the most part, no one sees the work the organization does.

There's no Holly Trolley Tour, no handing out of gifts in public.

It's all quiet, behind-the-scenes stuff – thousands of gift certificates from SCA to city and county social workers, then to the poorest families they supervise, then to cooperating stores that make sure the certificates are used for items for children. All the purchases have to be made by Jan. 1. The stores submit the certificates to SCA for reimbursement, usually with significant discounts on the items they've sold.

People who raise money for Santa Claus Anonymous, and who mail in their donations every year at this time, trust that, by all accounting, the organization does what it says it does – that, aside from expenses and paying one employee, the money it receives goes to the poorest children in Baltimore and surrounding counties. This year, more than others, it's important to know that someone does this right and does this well – and gifts meant for needy children get to needy children.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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