There Is a Santa Claus at Ecumen’s Luther Park at Sandpoint, Idaho

On Christmas morning in Sandpoint, Idaho, a dozen or so small children gather around the tree to see what Santa has brought them.  The kids all have at least one thing in common: Santa is definitely not their parents.  They are the kids of Kinderhaven, a group foster home and emergency shelter in this small northern Idaho town.  They have been removed from their homes and placed here for their own protection. 

But there is a Santa Claus.  Not far away, the residents of Ecumen’s Luther Park at Sandpoint have been in their workshop raising money for gifts and hand-knitting hats, mittens, scarves and blankets, making sure the Kinderhaven kids have some Christmas presents.  The Kinderhaven kids have no idea this is going on.  All they know for sure is that last Christmas they had about 12 gifts each.

The kids do know the Luther Park folks care.  They go over to the assisted living community and sing Christmas carols, and the Luther Park folks are really nice and friendly and don’t want them to leave.  But, as it should be, they don’t connect the dots.  Knowing who Santa is would spoil the fun.

But if the Kinderhaven kids could only know what joy they are giving Santa.  The Luther Park residents and staff have been working all year so that these beaten, bruised and emotionally scarred kids can have a happy Christmas.  In fact, the whole town of Sandpoint has been working toward this goal.  And before this Christmas is over, the town’s community effort will have raised about $175,000 for the kids.

Wendy Traffie, the administrator at Luther Park, says you have to live in the town to truly understand what’s going on.  There’s a kind of frontier spirit fostering the expectation that everyone must pitch in to help everyone else. And everyone pitches in to help the Kinderhaven kids.

Just before Christmas every year, there is a highly anticipated gala.  Local businesses sponsor Christmas trees that are decorated with donated theme gifts.  At the gala the trees are auctioned off.  But usually the first two or three people who “buy” the trees donate them back to be auctioned off again, and when the night is over about $175,000 has been raised for Kinderhaven.  This is in a town with a population of about 7,500.

Last year, Ecumen’s Luther Park at Sandpoint sponsored a tree with the theme “All Things Bonner County,” featuring local foods and gift certificates to businesses, donated by local merchants.  The tree raised $6,500 at auction.

This year, their tree had an “All Things Disney” theme, decorated with a Tinkerbelle ornament at the top, stuffed animals, toys, games and action-figure ornaments.  And Luther Park was honored by having their tree purchased for the Kinderhaven house to be the tree for the children.

Luther Park’s involvement started three years ago.  Amy Schroeder, an employee in maintenance and housekeeping, went to Wendy with the idea of maybe adopting a kid at Kinderhaven.  “I grew up here,” Amy says, “and I had such a wonderful family life.  I knew about Kinderhaven and thought it might be a good place for us to get involved.”

Then, as Wendy puts it, “it just snowballed” into an all-out labor of love.

As soon as this year’s gala ends, Amy is back in Wendy’s office with the tree-theme idea for the upcoming year.  Amy does the heavy lifting all year long, gathering the donations, making sure everything comes together and striving to make this the year that the Luther Park tree raises the most money of any tree at the gala.

The impact of the effort is astonishing, Wendy says. The residents and staff rally with a commitment unlike any she has ever experienced.  “It’s like everybody moves to a different level.  There’s no stress around this.  Residents and staff use their skills toward an important purpose. It becomes so much bigger than ourselves.  It’s all about the kids.  It reminds us of the real reason for the season.”

And in this picturesque small town, everyone gets to watch the kids grow.  In fact, three of the former Kinderhaven kids are now on staff at Luther Park— and now they know who Santa is.