For Operation Santa 2017, everyone met at Mills Diner in Rochester. It’s apparent that excitement is running high for what’s about to happen. Much planning (and shopping) went into preparing for this day and Thurston County Commissioners John Hutchings, Gary Edwards and Bud Blake, along with support staff, would soon climb into their cars and caravan to the home of Terrie Alverto.

Operation Santa, in its 24th year, happens annually in Rochester and is organized by ROOF Community Services. ROOF was started in 1993 by a concerned group of parents who wanted to make sure good things were happening in their community for their kids. It began with dances and grew over the years into a community center where 50 kids are bussed each day after school and receive personalized help with homework. The folks at ROOF came across a lot of hungry kids. As a result, the Food Bank was started and now serves 750 families a month. ROOF wondered if these same families needed help with Christmas and Operation Santa was born, a grassroots endeavor that has grown to meet the community’s needs.

Thurston County Commissioners
Thurston County Commissioners Bud Blake, Gary Edwards and John Hutchings pose with Santa who is also known as County Manager Ramiro Chavez. Photo credit: Jessica Reeves-Rush

In the beginning, presents were delivered to families, but eventually the scope of the operation became too large to complete all the deliveries. Now, half the participating families are adopted by other families, business or community groups and can pick up their packages at ROOF to remain anonymous or arrange to receive a delivery by whoever adopts their family for the holiday should they choose. The other half of the families go “shopping” at the gymnasium which is full of toys and clothes. This gives parents the opportunity to personally select the gifts themselves. They even have a room for stocking stuffers and gifts can be wrapped by volunteers onsite.

The Board of County Commissioners, who have been working with ROOF on Operation Santa for about 15 years, adopted Terrie Alverto and her three children Bella, Mario and Cristiano. Terrie’s sister-in-law, Paula Kitchen who also lives in the home with her two children Ranezmay and Remington, were adopted by Mill’s Diner.

Operation Santa
Santa takes a selfie with the kids in Rochester, Washington. Photo credit: Jessica Reeves-Rush

When the caravan of cars arrives on December 16, the family looks on from the front porch. Young Mario says what surprises him the most was all those cars! Santa emerges from one of the vehicles and he and his helpers go straight to work. Armloads of wrapped presents are ushered into the house load by load and stacked under the Christmas tree.

There is no doubt that the family is touched and slightly overwhelmed as the surprises keep coming. Santa takes pictures with the children. Terrie and Paula, who are brought to tears by the generosity, open a couple items including various gift cards for groceries and gas and a family portrait session. It’s hard to be a part of moments like this and not be affected, and so it was no surprise that there are tears of response from the Commissioners and all involved.

This is the first time Commissioner John Hutchings has been a part of Operation Santa.

Operation Santa, ROOF
The family was overwhelmed by the generosity of the donors and knows they’ll have a wonderful Christmas. Photo credit: Jessica Reeves-Rush

“It’s exceptionally touching,” says Hutchings, “How can you not be moved by the heart of the kids and moms? How can you not be moved when they are moved to tears? And, they are surprised and overwhelmed in a happy joyous way, not in crisis. This is the gift that the giver receives.”

For Terrie and Paula’s part, Operation Santa is more than they expected.

“I wasn’t going to sign up for this but she talked me into it,” explains Paula. “I didn’t think my kids were going to have a Christmas.”

But for them, the best present was Santa himself. “Seeing our kids light up from seeing Santa,” says Terrie, “The gifts don’t really mean as much as their happy faces.”

“When I saw my daughter’s eyes light up….,” adds Paula, overcome with emotion.

Commissioner John Hutchings acts as Santa’s Helper during Operation Santa. Photo credit: Jessica Reeves-Rush

“Cristiano said he could tell people that ‘Santa was at my house!’” says Terrie. “What means the most is the caring.”

Operation Santa happens every year in Rochester and requires many volunteers to make it happen. If you are interested in volunteering next year or learning more about ROOF and the services they provide, visit ROOF online or call 360-273-6375.

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