Column: In some neighborhoods, Santa is a volunteer kids see every day

Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune

Santa isn’t always a jolly old man in a red velvet suit. He doesn’t land on every rooftop in a gift-laden sleigh, driven by nine reindeer, one with a shiny red nose.

In some neighborhoods, Santa has a more familiar face. He or she is the minister, the social worker, the police officer, the teacher and the community volunteers whom children interact with every day. At Christmastime, they play a dual role.

The week before Christmas, volunteers were out in full force in North Lawndale. They worked late into the night for days, preparing the community for an illuminating show no one had seen before.

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They strung sparkling white lights around the trunks of trees along West Douglas Boulevard and erected Christmas trees with shiny silver and gold balls.

From her apartment building across the street, Anyah Smith can see the statue and fountain in Independence Square. Most of the time, that’s no big deal for a 3-year-old. But this year is different.

The fountain, a landmark in North Lawndale, is all lit up. Christmas lights flicker around the wrought iron fence. The cement structure is adorned with wreaths and surrounded by small Christmas trees.

The youngster has never seen her neighborhood so festive. Never in this West Side community has West Douglas Boulevard looked so much like Christmas.

On Saturday, residents gathered on the lawn of Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church, wearing masks and social distancing as much as they could, to celebrate Christmas in a way that perhaps is more significant this year than ever before.

This neighborhood is one of the poorest in the city, and COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact, both medically and economically. The pandemic has compounded the social problems that have long plagued the community.

West Douglas Boulevard is too often the scene of a shooting or a killing. The sound of gunfire and sirens are familiar. But on this night, children moved around freely like all children should, as if there were not a worry in the world.

A block that had been dark and drab for much too long was full of light.

There was a time decades ago, according to Princess Shaw, a lifelong North Lawndale resident, when the green space around the fountain was so safe that residents sometimes slept there overnight. Or so her now-deceased grandparents once told her.

She has never seen her neighborhood that way. So this year, she decided it was time to change the narrative of West Douglas Boulevard.

“We wanted to make it something better,” said Shaw, 38. “When you go downtown and see the lights, you say, ‘OK, Christmas is here.’ But from what we see in here, Christmas is just another day. The lights represent bringing light back to Lawndale.”

Her Light Up Lawndale GoFundMe campaign raised $2,650. Toys and other gift donations came in from organizations across the city.

And the residents were grateful.

As soon as she arrived at the festivities, Anyah spotted the shiny bicycles parked in a row on the steps of the church. There was a helmet in front of each and a bike light. And to the side, there were boxes of gift bags full of goodies.

There was a table filled with books, everything from Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” for toddlers to “The Hunger Games” for the older kids. Anyah managed to snag “Merry Christmas, Curious George.”

But the pink Schwinn bicycle with the white seat and fenders is what really caught her eye. She and her grandmother were lucky to have arrived early enough to get a token that could be redeemed for one of the bikes.

The bikes were refurbished, but they looked brand-new. The problem, though, was that there were only 28 of them, not nearly enough for all of the children who wanted one.

If not for Shaw and Stone Temple’s first lady, Pastor Reshorna Fitzpatrick, Anyah and her two younger siblings might have awakened on Christmas morning to much less.

Times have been tough, said her grandmother, Debra Lee, 57. Over the course of the pandemic, their electricity was turned off and she has struggled to pay the rent.

But on this evening, there was nothing but joy — even when the bikes ran out.

Four-year-old Uriah Hughes Jr. was hoping to take the Red Flyer home, but it was already spoken for. His disappointment dwindled, though, when he saw that the gift bags contained an “Incredibles” action figure, which was also on his list for Santa.

His mom, Shalethia Russell, 30, told him not to worry about the bike. She didn’t promise that he’d wake up to one on Christmas morning, but she is doing everything in her power to make sure that her four children don’t go lacking.

She works two jobs, one part time and the other full time. “I’m used to making ends meet,” she said.

Lots of people in North Lawndale are used to doing whatever it takes to make sure their children don’t go lacking. But when they need a little help, Santas like Shaw and Fitzpatrick help fill the gap.

“This is about bringing back the holiday spirit into the community,” said Fitzpatrick. “We wanted to partner with our community and have some sense of unity.”

But for the children, it’s much more than that.

It’s about waking up on Christmas morning to a bicycle, a book or an “Incredibles” action figure, and believing in the magic that the holiday brings.

dglanton@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @dahleeng