OKLAHOMA CITY — Let’s face it, Santa Claus may be all-knowing and omnipotent, but even the big guy sometimes needs help.
Every year in Oklahoma the jolly fellow relies on an obscure commission to spread holiday cheer and gifts to children living in group homes or juvenile detention facilities.
It’s officially called the Santa Claus Commission. It was created by law, though its existence, unlike its eponym, is little known.
“The who?” one state employee asked this reporter after an inquiry to see if the group had survived the latest budget slaughter, which saw dozens of state agencies lose funding.
You know, the Santa Claus Commission, created by the Legislature in the 1930s. It was prompted by a state budget official who, after realizing that some children were doing without, gathered up candy canes and fruit, delivered the packages, then lobbied for the commission's creation.
Turns out, the group is alive and well and still helping Santa. These days it has public meetings and all the fixings that go with being a public agency. It’s even recognized in the state handbook.
Years ago, the commission’s efforts were supplemented by the Legislature, which allocated a small tithing from the budget — past reports show about $1,500 a year. More recently legislators have given a Scrooge-like “bah-humbug” and cut off funding.
Now it’s mostly the generosity of Oklahomans that keeps the program afloat. This year it will cost $5,565 to give 371 teens in state custody either a $15 Wal-Mart gift card, or if they’re locked up in a juvenile detention center $15 in canteen credit.
To be sure, these teens may not be the cream of the cop of Oklahoma's children. Still, one can’t help but feel badly for those who've never received a Christmas gift.
Yep. No Christmas gifts. Ever.
“A lot of them come from a situation that is not the typical, family-style Christmas,” said Santa Claus Commissioner JLynn Hartman, who is also a director of government relations for the Office of Juvenile Affairs.
For Hartman, who's been involved in the commission for seven years, such stories are the sweetest reminders of the program’s success but also the saddest commentary.
“That’s just heartbreaking,” she said.
The commission is composed of three volunteers — right now all are ladies — who ensure the donations are best used and that every child in state custody gets at least a little something.
It’s hard to imagine that a $15 gift card could go far these days. But, the looks on the teens' faces when they realize they haven’t been forgotten during the holidays is priceless, Hartman said.
The teens are really grateful to get anything, she said. The girls typically take their money and buy things — like beauty products and scented shampoos — that teenagers usually take for granted. The boys buy things like soccer balls.
Anyone who’d like more information on the Santa Claus Commission can call the Office of Juvenile Affairs at (405) 530-2800.