Orange Santa volunteers gear up for donation drive

Each December, I find myself in a familiar group of laughing, orange-clad elves, waiting to be assigned our holiday duties. Our heads are topped with floppy orange caps, ending in a white cotton ball that tends to fall across our eyes.

Again this year, it is my job to wrap the children's presents. I know what to expect. Gathering an armful of custom decorated bags and my favorite wrapping papers, I set up my station with plenty of tape, scissors and multicolored ribbons. When the mountain of presents rolls in, I want to be ready.

For those who have been wondering about the elves you see scampering around campus during the holiday season, this is the story of the Orange Santa Holiday Store elf experience. Orange Santa is preparing to summon his elves into action again this year beginning with the Office of Relationship Management and University Events accepting donations through Dec. 7.

All donated toys or gifts should be new, unwrapped and in the original packing. Wrapping paper, gift bags, ribbons and gift cards are also needed to wrap and label gifts. Visit the Orange Santa Web site for a list of collection stations.

The Orange Santa program was begun in 1994 to foster a more caring campus environment by providing help for members of the university community who have special needs during the holiday season. In December 2006, Orange Santa served 410 families, providing 1,501 children and teens with presents.

The program's Orange Santa Holiday Store provides an opportunity for participating families from the university community with special needs during the holiday season to "shop" for gifts and toys for children in their immediate family. The store is stocked with items contributed through the campus-wide donation drive as well as items collected at special events.

At the climax of its toy donation drive, Orange Santa presents a holiday celebration known as Songs of the Season, where students and staff join the music school's choral organizations on the west steps of the Main Building for rousing verses of "O Tannenbaum" and other holiday favorites, as elves fill a miniature Tower to the top with donated goodies. This year's concert is Dec. 7 at noon.

At the Center for Transportation Research (CTR) where I work, the research support staff enjoys volunteering at the Orange Santa Holiday Store every year. Volunteering as a departmental group is not only a boost to the Orange Santa organizers, it gives us a chance to work as a team.

"It's an opportunity to give back to the community and help fellow staff stretch their holiday budget," said Executive Assistant Diane Higginbotham.

Everyone has a different experience on the event, but everyone agrees it is a great way to contribute to the university community.

John Brigance, who oversees information technology for CTR and works the gift wrap tables during Orange Santa, enjoys the satisfaction of serving others and sharing his Christmas spirit.

"It's the spirit of compassion for others, something we should practice all year round," he said.

CTR library manager Louise Rosenzweig said her favorite part of participating in Orange Santa is chatting with the children. She asks them to tell her their favorite Christmas song. Most reply by singing a child's version of Jingle Bells ("Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg.")

"Every year, they have an updated version and new verses," she said.

CTR contracts manager Lisa Cramer, who serves as a bilingual volunteer each year, said, "Orange Santa is about UT employees helping other UT employees.

"Everything is donated, both the toys and everyone's time. A mom or dad shows up, expecting perhaps one toy. They are surprised and delighted when they are given so much more than they expect."

To find out how you can get involved in Orange Santa this year go to