Santa Claus made an early stop to Alachua County this holiday season to greet the Gainesville community with a mighty “ho, ho, ho” and of course, plenty of photos.
The annual “Operation Santa Delivery” occurred for the first time since the start of the pandemic on Saturday at Santa Fe College. This event, sponsored by LifeSouth, a community blood supplier, had about 30 local organizations in attendance ranging from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention (Cade Museum) to Alachua County Fire Rescue to the Gainesville Amateur Radio Society (GARS), all of which shared a common goal – to give back.
Each organization prepared an activity for children and families, resulting in extensive lines to assemble magical reindeer food and countless smiling faces, one of whom was the event organizer herself, Laura Bialeck.
“We know we ask a lot of the community to come in and donate blood – and we’re constantly asking – so this is our way of giving back” said Bialeck, LifeSouth’s Community Development Coordinator.
Bialeck has been working with LifeSouth for 15 years and has been involved with “Operation Santa Delivery” since 2013, hence, developed a love and passion for the event.
“We were unfortunately unable to have the event last year for the first time in decades because of [COVID-19], so I’m very happy to see that there is a huge crowd and that people ran to see Santa when he arrived,” Bialeck said. “It really is like a carnival atmosphere out here.”
One of the activities children partook in was speaking to Mrs. Claus by means of radio at the GARS booth.
President of GARS, Vann Chesney, was the official liaison between Mrs. Claus and the Gainesville community, and Chesney was enjoying every moment.
“[This event] is a way to meet the public, talk to some great kids and show them a little bit about how radio works,” Chesney said. “It’s so much fun to talk to the kids and see their eyes light up when they talk to Santa Claus.”
On the opposite side of the North Fields at Santa Fe College were members from the Partnership for Strong Families. At this booth, children were able to add “magical sparkles” into their personal bag of reindeer food to help Santa Claus find their home on Christmas Eve.
“We came out here today so that we could get out into the community and really advocate for foster care and adoption,” said Andrea Dziwulski, Outreach Recruitment Specialist for Partnership for Strong Families. “We wanted to do something for all of the kids here today who [came] out to see Santa.”
Two members from the Cade Museum also attended the event to advocate for its mission – spreading an inventive mindset and transforming communities.
Dylan Power, the Outreach Coordinator for the Cade Museum, taught children how to make a chicken-in-a-cup by soley using a cup, a piece of string and a paperclip.
“We have had so many kids making a chicken-in-a-cup, and when they see this string, a paperclip and a cup they are confused at first,” Power said. “It is not how it looks; it’s how it sounds. With a little bit of friction and some vibrations, you can make a clucking noise with the cup.”
A few booths to the right of the Cade Museum’s was the United Way of North Central Florida where children were able to guess how many holiday items were in a jar for the chance to win a toy, spin a wheel for candy and play Plinko to win prizes.
The toys distributed at the booth were thanks to donors from United Way of Central Florida’s annual toy drive “United for the Holidays.” The goal of the drive is to redistribute toys into the community, which was done at “Operation Santa Delivery.”
“We decided that this would be a great way to connect with the community since we have all been disconnected for so long due to the pandemic,” Amanda Miller, President and CEO of United Way of North Central Florida, said. “We have all been working remotely, so it has just been great to get back out into the community.”
Not only was it a joy for volunteers to interact with the community once again at the event, but also for the community members themselves.
Gainesville resident Brittany Walker came to the event for the first time with her two children and is confident they will return next year.
“Of course, we came out here today to see Santa, but we also heard about all the other events, games and opportunities to socialize and be out in the open away from quarantine, so we wanted to come and spend time with others,” Walker said. “We got here an hour early, so my daughter has gotten to play all of the games and is just having so much fun.”
When asked what her favorite activity of the day was, Walker’s daughter took a moment to look around, analyzed the booths and responded to the question with a smile, shrug and “all of them.”
The blood donations, games and crafts endured for about three hours on Saturday, leaving Laura Bialeck overjoyed with the outcome of the annual event.
“It is just so great to see that people’s enthusiasm is back for the holiday season,” Bialeck said. “The best part to me, as someone who works at LifeSouth, is being able to give back in this way to the community.”