MEET ME AT THE SANTA MALL
By Dick Mason
Credit cards are not accepted at this mall but North Pole currency is.
It is La Grande's Santa Claus Mall, which will open next month for the ninth year in a row. There shoppers will find enough stocking stuffers to fill a convoy of reindeer-drawn sleighs.
What is the Santa Mall?
It is a place where everyone, including children from low- income families, can enjoy a Christmas shopping experience. Children are the focus of the Santa Mall.
"We want to give children from low- income families a chance to shop and participate in Christmas,'' said Donna Brownlee of La Grande.
Brownlee is part of group of five women who work diligently to organize the Santa Mall each year. The others are Darleen Hendon of La Grande, Cheryl Hafer of Cove, Mary Tolles of La Grande and Sandee Fox of La Grande.
These dedicated volunteers make it possible for children from low-income families to shop at the Santa Mall. The children are given script, also known as Santa Dollars, to spend. Vendors are reimbursed for each of the Santa Dollars they receive.
Everyone else coming to the Santa Mall uses regular currency. All types of money go a long way at the mall because the price limit for all items is $5 and many gifts cost $1 to $2. Items that are sold include ceramics, stuffed animals, educational toys, food, Avon products and much more. Only new items can sold by venders.
Each year about 400 families come to the Santa Mall and more than 30 vendors set up tables. In addition, about 200 children have their pictures taken with Santa.
Giving children the chance to shop for others reveals their selfless nature and sets the stage for some heart warming situations. Tolles will never forget the time a boy about 9 years old bought an Afghan.
"I'd like to pick this up for the woman who took care of me when my mom was in the hospital,'' he told Tolles.
Hearing children say moving things like this may be one reason why volunteers regularly come back to help.
"Usually when people volunteer once they come again and again,'' Brownlee said.
The Santa Mall was started in 1995 by Sandy Young of La Grande, who was in charge of the area's Volunteer Services program. Volunteer Services and the National Guard funded the Santa Mall for about five years. Then the Volunteer Services program was pulled in La Grande because of budget cuts.
The loss of a chief sponsor put the Santa Mall program in jeopardy. The La Grande Lions Club saved the cherished program though, stepping forward to sponsor it. The Lions Club has remained a sponsor since then.
"Our motto is, Â‘We serve,' said Hafer, a Lions Club member. "We wanted to assist the children. We need a caring community.''
Today the Lions Club and the National Guard remain the Santa Mall's primary sponsors.
The Santa Claus Mall is run the last Saturday before Christmas at the Blue Mountain Conference Center. This year it will be open Dec. 18. The Santa Mall is open to youths age 15 and under from 10 a.m. to noon. It opens to the general public at noon.
Children usually begin lining up about 9 a.m., anxiously anticipating the opening of the Santa Mall. At 10 a.m. Santa arrives on a fire truck. Santa then leads the children into the mall and one of the most exciting Christmas experiences of their young lives.