November 16, 2016 @ 1:06 PM
Eleven years ago, Greg Cantwell had an idea.
It was Christmastime. Complaints rained around him, about the commercialization of Christmas, about the excess of presents.
So he asked himself, would anyone really care if he spent half as much on presents and put the other half toward something a little more worthy?
“I couldn’t think of anyone in my life who would care, so I thought, why not just do it?”
But where to put the resources? That wasn’t so hard, as it turned out. He’d been in New York a long time. He knew how difficult conditions were for homeless people, especially around the holidays.
So he and two friends met at his apartment, and they assembled a couple dozen Christmas stockings. They stuffed them with a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, cookies, gum, candy canes, a McDonald’s gift certificate, a five dollar bill.
Cantwell, right, stuffing an enormous pile of stockings at his Brooklyn apartment with fellow Operation Santa Claus volunteers Carlos Gonzalez and Viacom employee Judi Sadon. Photo courtesy of Operation Santa Claus
Then they threaded their way through Manhattan’s East Village and handed the parcels out to the homeless. They hit Tomkins Square Park and Washington Square Park and Avenue A and anyplace else where they could find someone who could use a little extra.
“We were astonished, the reaction we got from people,” Cantwell, a client planning director for Viacom Ad Sales, recalls. “They were just not expecting it.”
Operation Santa Claus was born.
Cantwell has repeated the effort each year since, generally on the weekend before Christmas. Planning starts a minimum of two months in advance, with a Go Fund Me page and an email blast and social media posts.
As donations accumulate, Cantwell and “Chief Elf” Luisa Alves, who works in Spike’s inventory team, coordinate to determine how many stockings they can afford and what will go in each. A mammoth trip to Costco follows. They fill four or five shopping carts. Cantwell orders the gift cards in bulk from McDonald’s.
On the designated day, Cantwell invites everyone out to his Williamsburg home for a sangria party. A mammoth assembly line snakes through his two-bedroom apartment. Dozens of volunteers drop up to 50 items in each stocking. In 2015, they assembled 250. The goal for 2016 is 300.
It’s a novel project, a flourish of goodwill and selflessness that pushes back against the relentless commercial tide of the holiday season. People have noticed. A few years ago, NBC local news in New York featured Cantwell and Operation Santa Claus in a segment:
Each year, the event grows larger. Each year, Cantwell rouses the volunteers with a speech just before they disperse across the city.