Sidewalk Santas ring bells for the neediest
The clatter of 50 bells filled the streets near Rockefeller Center Friday, each carried by a jolly Santa Claus, part of a festive parade that kicked off the 110th annual Sidewalk Santa campaign to help the needy, organized by the nonprofit group Volunteers of America.
People out for a stroll, especially with children, came running to investigate and take pictures of the red-suited army of Volunteers of America employees of diverse ages, genders and ethnicities.
With most of their faces hidden beneath big white beards, the Santas rang their bells and cried "ho ho ho!" as they marched up Fifth Avenue, to the corner of 59th Street.
"We just went through a storm but this is New York, we come right back up," said one of the Santas, David Torres, 51, from Queens.
He waved to a curious little boy nearby and gave him a high five, putting a shy smile on the boy's face.
New Yorkers can expect to see fewer Sidewalk Santas out and about during the holiday season since the organization shifted resources into getting donations online a year ago. Rachel Weinstein, the New York City chapter director, said that fundraising on the Internet has yielded more money through corporate donations, all of which go toward buying food vouchers for New Yorkers in need. Last year, the program distributed 2,000 vouchers worth $25 each.
"There is an even greater need this year due to the devastation that Hurricane Sandy caused . . . With one in five New Yorkers living below the national poverty level, homelessness near record levels and government programs being cut, our help can make a vital difference," Weinstein said.
Torres, who was previously homeless, started working for the Volunteers of America six years ago.
"It's about giving back because you know what it feels like," he said.
The sentiment is common among Volunteers of America employees taking part in the Santa march.
Theopolis Conley, 40, who towered over the other Santas, has been a case manager, coordinator and Santa with the organization for 15 years.
"It's one of the best experiences in the world to be out here especially during the holiday giving time because being a parent, I know there's other people out there who just went through the Sandy weather storm and I know they're displaced and they probably have very little hope. But we're here to tell them that we do have hope for them," said Conley of the Bronx.
For more information on the Sidewalk Santa campaign: sidewalksantanyc.org