The office building near Philipsburg didn’t look much like the North Pole.
There were Wal-Mart semis outside instead of sleighs. The elves were about six feet tall and debating where they should pick up pizza for lunch. The workshop was an empty room with bags organized by numbers.
The one thing that seemed right on point was the little woman in the heart of it all.
Judy Sinclair, in her festive sweatshirt, marshaled her forces, organized her charts and got Christmas happening for hundreds of families in need who signed up for the Christmas program at the Moshannon Valley branch of the YMCA of Centre County.
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On Sinclair’s detailed list were the names of 205 families. Each name corresponded to a numbered bag — some a giant festively decorated gift bag but most a simple opaque black — filled with the things that would turn a normal day into a holiday for a whole family. A coat for each family member. Some warm clothes. New socks. And a present for each child.
A parade of families — mostly a parade of moms with the occasional tag-along child unaware of what was actually happening — came in to the makeshift wonderland on Monday one or two at a time. They would give Sinclair their names. She would call out the right number. One helper would dash off to grab the corresponding bag and take it to the family’s car.
“Food!” Sinclair would say sometimes.
Then the families that weren’t already getting a holiday dinner from another agency got a box with a turkey, 10 pounds of potatoes and more festive fixings.
It’s been happening for 37 years.
Sinclair says it started simply, when a local cable company ran a special one season. Donate a toy, get HBO for free. It got a lot of new HBO subscribers and a lot of toys. The cable company reached out to the Y. Did they have any idea what kids might need some toys?
They did. And those few toys way back then grew and grew and grew.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Howard Long, CEO of the YMCA of Centre County, said of his first year watching the Christmas program unfold in front of him.
The other Centre County locations do smaller programs, but nothing like the Mo Valley event that puts toys in the hands of more than 500 kids. After the Philipsburg Y joined the Centre County overall group a few years ago, Long saw it all up close and personal and was amazed.
“It’s incredible,” he said.
Sinclair estimates the value of gifts, coats and food given out this year at more than $100,000, and believes that the program has given out well more than $1 million in good cheer over the years. With so many parts coming from donations from other groups, it’s hard to calculate.
While the Y puts the presents in families’ hands, it gets a boost from other local groups like Kiwanis — which buys a lot of the coats when they go on sale at the end of the season — and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Plenty of the food comes from collections at Philipsburg-Osceola school concerts.
“This is really a year-round thing,” Sinclair said.
But why do so many people put so much effort into that one day for parents to show their kids a great holiday?
“I don’t do it for the parents,” Sinclair said. “It’s all about the kids. Every kid deserves to go back to school in new clothes in January. Every kid deserves to have a new toy to take to show-and-tell. Every kid.”