“I knew Santa didn’t forget me.”
That is one of Kim Witham’s favorite memories from Christmas last year and one that still brings tears to her eyes. It was uttered by a local boy after receiving a gift from the Lewis County Forgotten Children’s Fund and perfectly sums up the reason the volunteer organization’s members continue to do what they do.
“That’s something that every year continues to amaze me,” Witham said. “There’s a lot of magic that goes into this. Not just our Santas and elves, but all our volunteers, just have this desire to love compassionately.”
Witham and her husband, Mark, brought the Washington-based Forgotten Children’s Fund to Lewis County five Christmases ago. The Forgotten Children’s Fund was founded in 1976 in by a man named Dick Francisco, who accidentally received a letter at his Seattle-area restaurant from a young boy named Craig. The letter, in which the boy included a map to his home so that Santa would not get lost coming to their house like last year, inspired Francisco to begin a volunteer organization that would bring Christmas joy to families like Craig’s. in 1976, the organization brought Christmas to 285 children in 81 families. Today, the organization serves about 2,900 children in 800 families each year in Lewis, King, Skagit, Island, Snohomish, Whatcom and Chelan counties.
The Withams became involved in the organization through Mark Witham’s job managing the Centralia Les Schwab. In 2010, he had the opportunity to help wrap presents at the organization’s central wrapping facility.
“He’s kind of a Scrooge,” Kim Witham said with a chuckle. “He hates the whole commercialization part of Christmas but he came home a completely changed person. He said ‘you’ve got to come see this place.’”
The Withams had sponsored Christmas presents for local families on their own for several years and thought opening a branch of the Forgotten Children’s Fund in Lewis County could be a vehicle to helping even more families. In 2013, the Withams helped four or five families with the support of the Forgotten Children’s Fund. In 2014, they were able to help 10 families. In 2015, they officially founded a branch of the Forgotten Children’s Fund and helped 124 families. Their first official year, they had only about five Santas, so delivering Christmas to that many families took them two full days.
“That was kind of a special year and we haven’t forgotten that year,” Kim Witham said. “It was what made us different and brought (Forgotten Children’s Fund) to Lewis County. It was rough and difficult and kind of figure it out as you go.”
This year, the Lewis County Forgotten Children’s Fund will visit about 200 local families during their annual Dec. 23 delivery day. About 25 Santas each travel with six to eight North Pole elves to each household. Four teams of Santas and elves speak Spanish in order to be able to serve members of the large Hispanic population in Lewis County. There is also an army of volunteers who help not only on that day but well before with everything from distributing and processing nomination forms to organizing and wrapping presents, to shopping for needed items that were not donated.
“The most important part of this is not Mark and I, it’s this village,” Witham said. “We couldn’t do it without the volunteers.”
All of the Lewis County Forgotten Children’s Fund Santas go to “Santa school” and all of the elves go to “elf school” before they are ready to make deliveries on Dec. 23. Training covers topics such as how to maintain a positive and loving attitude despite the bleak situations and stories they may experience on delivery day. Elves and Santas are not allowed to cry while inside the homes but Kim Witham said tears are not uncommon after the team has left a home. The visiting teams also learn how to answer difficult questions from kids such as whether they can bring a parent home from jail for Christmas.
“The hard wishes are things we delicately dance around,” Witham said. “We have toys. We don’t have miracles. It’s a lot of listening and a lot of reassurance it’s going to be OK, this is temporary.”
Families can apply for assistance through the Forgotten Children’s Fund or can be nominated. More than 90 percent of the Lewis County organization’s nominations come from the schools. Kim Witham explained that because the need is so great, they do not repeat the same families every year. And the emphasis is on serving families that need a “hand up” during the holidays, which can mean anything from a family struggling to make ends meet to a family that recently suffered a tragedy such as a house fire or an illness.
At each stop, every child in the household receives: a stocking, which always includes new socks; about three toys or gifts; a coat, hat, scarf and gloves; and two books. The organization strives to provide every child with a bicycle when possible, most of which are purchased from the local Fred Meyer Distribution Center and assembled by volunteers at I-5 Toyota. The deliveries are meticulously planned, including small details such as hand-tied ribbon on every present, because if you are only receiving a small number of presents it makes the unwrapping take longer.
“It’s a whole experience,” said Hayli Howard, who has been a volunteer with the Lewis County Forgotten Children’s Fund since its beginning. “We deliver that 20 minutes of magic where everybody is happy and forgets about what’s going on.”
“It’s kind of magical,” added Emilee Witham, donations coordinator for the Lewis County Forgotten Children’s Fund. “There’s something about walking into someone’s house with every hope and dream they have and taking away their worries for a while.”
Giving with an emphasis on those receiving the gift, rather than those giving the gift, is what attracted Sarah and Andy Etue of Chehalis to the organization three years ago. Andy usually dons the red suit and Sarah and their daughter Amelia, 16, help out as elves. Some Forgotten Children’s Fund elves actually make up North Pole names for themselves but Sarah said she simply introduces herself to children as a North Pole elf. Nonetheless, donning that character is one of her favorite parts of the work.
“I really like being able to help anonymously,” Sarah Etue said. “We can give of ourselves and be in costumes. It’s not about this Etue family did this or that.”
“That look on their faces when a family sees Santa, there’s nothing like it,” Amelia Etue added.
Besides gifts for the children, a Christmas visit from the Forgotten Children’s Fund also usually includes assistance for the family. Every family receives a blanket, about 200 of which are handmade by women from local Latter-Day Saints churches. Families who need it receive food for their pantry or gift cards or assistance with needed expenses.
Kim Witham noted that a large amount of the toys that are donated through drives including bins at local businesses as well as a “toy war” between 11 local bars each year. She explained that locally donated toys doubly bless local families since the Lewis County Forgotten Children’s Fund shares its donated items with the Lewis County Foster Parents Association. She also noted that monetary donations stay local as much as possible because she emphasizes purchasing items from wish lists from local stores.
“I’m such a shop-local hometown girl,” Kim Witham said. “I make sure we shop here so our community benefits as much as possible. We want to make sure our dollars here. That’s important to us as an organization. We want to make sure the community knows we try really hard to make sure we’re connected here.”