THE DALLES — For more than 30 years, the “secret Santa” of The Dalles has funded several hundred thousand dollars worth of new Christmas gifts for hundreds of needy children.
His doctors, however, say this is Santa’s last Christmas. He’s dying from a progressive lung disease.
Until this year, the man who plays Santa has insisted on anonymity. The only reason he agreed to be identified this year is out of hope that someone else would be inspired to step forward and carry on the tradition of giving.
Even now, as he battles idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, he wants attention to focus on needy kids and their parents.
A child of poverty, Jim Ellett, 68, remembered the shame of public events in which he received hand-me-down Christmas gifts.
As Ellett Construction Co. grew, he and his wife, Loretta, agreed that they should quietly give from their success to create a gift exchange in which givers and recipients would feel no shame.
First, a group of young family members and friends meets at a local department store to buy gifts. This year, they pulled about 800 toys from the shelves of Kmart.
On Saturday, the Salvation Army will set up a makeshift store at a local shopping center. Parents then may come in and select toys.
“We give them to the parents, and say, ‘You go home and wrap it and say it’s from whomever’,” says Capt. Sabrina Tumey of the Salvation Army.
About 600 children will share the gifts. The Salvation Army says the bill this year came to around $15,000. In some years, it’s topped $20,000.
Helen Madsen, a friend of Ellett and member of the Salvation Army board, has followed the progress and growth of the gift-giving program since the late 1970s. She says the combined value of gift purchases over the years easily could exceed $400,000.
Ellett is visibly embarrassed when questions turn to dollars and cents. To him, the project isn’t about competition of public praise. It’s about creating stronger bonds between kids and their parents.
Ellett grew up in a shack on a hill in The Dalles. His father supported his mother and their five children on a slim disability check, for mustard gas injuries suffered in World War I.
“We were never hungry, and we had a lot of love,” Ellett recalls.
He remembers Christmas charity as a kid: hand-me-down toys and an orange, presented in a packed auditorium.
“It was so humiliating,” he recalls. “I don’t think it was right to rub your nose in it. They never meant it that way, but that’s the way it worked out.”
As soon as they could, the Elletts started helping parents of limited means buy new items for their children.
First, it was clothing gift certificates. Then toys, relayed through the Salvation Army.
“The kids have to think better of their parents when they think the parents got the gifts for them,” he says.
“It gives them pride, and it gives the parents pride.”
On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 15, Santa sat in his motorized wheelchair in a back room at Kmart. As he watched, his grandkids and the children of his nephew and a teenage friend of Santa’s physical therapist pushed empty shopping carts out — and full carts back.
“You’re not spending enough money,” Santa lovingly chided Makenzie Ellett, 7, a granddaughter.
Tyler Fisher, 10, of Vancouver and one of Santa’s grandsons, has been a designated shopper before.
“It’s pretty fun,” he said. “You put your hand behind all the Hot Wheels, and go —”
He swept his hand sideways, imaginary toys tumbling from a shelf into his shopping cart.
Daughter of Santa’s nephew, Fritz Ellett, and his wife Leann, designated shopper Haley Ellett, 7, considered her shopping cart. It was jammed full of Just Kidz Tote ‘n Trolley Dolls.
“We know how to shop,” she said. “We’re fast, and we know lots of things for kids my age.”
Rachel Fisher, 8, another granddaughter, enjoys the shopping spree as well — for the fringe benefits. For their efforts, Santa’s elves get a gift or two of their own selection.
For the last three years, the same four employees at Kmart have volunteered their time to check and box the purchases. Operations manager Christina Wentz says the store gives Santa the 10 percent employee discount.
Nobody’s quite sure what will happen next year.
“The doctor told me I’d never see another Christmas,” said Ellett.
His daughter, Vickie, says he has about six months to live. His physician was unavailable to discuss the illness and treatment options.
Ellett is hoping to set up a trust fund, to continue funding purchases.
Madsen, the Salvation Army board member, says asking the community to pick up the full load could be difficult.
“Truthfully, we couldn’t have done as much for the children without his help,” she says. “We were able to give them three real nice gifts, plus stocking stuffers.”
Vickie Ellett, a real estate agent, says her parents always emphasized giving over getting.
“Mom and Dad always took us out to do Thanksgiving baskets, and bought for the Tree of Joy,” she says. “That’s really important, the giving.”
Ellett says people should do it, without expecting a pat on the back.
“It doesn’t make any difference whether you get anything or not — it’s giving that’s important,” he says.
“I think the good Lord meant for you to help other people. Maybe it hasn’t helped as much as I think, but I think it’s helped a lot of kids through some tough times.”
Tumey, of the Salvation Army, says the Elletts’ is the largest contribution to a toy fund that benefits from dozens of individual and group contributions during the holiday season. They all deserve thanks, she says.
“It’s the same impulse, but he’s in a position where he’s blessed with so much,” she says. “I don’t know that he thinks it’s such a huge thing. It’s just what he does.”
This year, the need for toys has increased, although not as dramatically as Tumey had feared.
“We’re seeing a lot of folks who are in minimum wage jobs, the working poor, who are trying to make it, and need help to bridge the gap,” she says.
She says Ellett has a huge heart.
“I think he realizes he’s been blessed, and in being blessed, he wants to do as the scripture says: love people in the way you would want to be loved,” Tumey says.
“God bless Mr. Ellett as he’s having to put things in final order.”