Pfc. Nicholas MacDonald and his wife braced for a tight Christmas this year, their first since they moved their three children from Georgia to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“We were looking at each other wondering, ‘How are we going to do this?’ ” the soldier said.
They’re pulling it off with the help of an 18-year-old nonprofit at Lewis-McChord that gives a hand every holiday season to junior service members living on slim paychecks.
This year, Santa’s Castle is providing more than 800 military families with three new gifts for each of their children.
That’s enough for MacDonald to fill up a shopping cart and look forward to a warm first family Christmas in the Northwest.
“We’re extremely grateful,” he said after a morning of shopping at Santa’s Castle with mother-in-law Darlene Erwin.
The shop is busy these days with “elves” guiding 16 service members every hour through shelves packed with basketballs, DVDs, video games, radios and Star Wars figures. Bikes are available, too.
Some toys have a more classic feel, like the tiny green plastic World War II Army figures that forever play out young boys’ imaginary battles.
Planning Santa’s Castle is a yearlong endeavor for its board of directors and volunteers. It sets a fundraising target and maps out shopping plans based on the prior year’s activity.
Come August, the group puts out feelers in different Army units and asks commanders to refer junior soldiers who might be experiencing a financial hardship. It does not accept walk-ins.
In the fall, units such as the 555th Engineer Brigade and I Corps at Lewis-McChord go on their own toy drives, lending some publicity and momentum as the planning heads into its home stretch.
Then, for two weeks in early December, the shop opens with enthusiastic volunteers and grateful service members.
“There’s nothing like seeing a grown soldier cry over getting toys for their kids,” said Lisa Bennett, secretary for Santa’s Castle this season. It’s her third year volunteering there.
Alice Richard of Issaquah has been volunteering at Santa’s Castle for the past eight years. She takes two weeks off of work at the Defense Contract Management Agency in Bellevue to be with the troops, a tradition that she traces back to her family inviting service members over for Christmas Dinner when she grew up on Vashon Island.
“They’re most gracious,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, we get all of this?’ ”
The MacDonalds certainly were. The soldier and his mother-in-law took their time checking out the presents, taking advice from “elf” volunteer Tiffany Bender.
The family isn’t accustomed to the gray skies of the Northwest yet, but they’re all together. It took them more than a year to get the family in one place after MacDonald was assigned to Lewis-McChord in 2010.
“Things are better now, but it’s just catching up,” he said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646