For as little as $5 or $10 anyone can make a difference in a child’s life. Santa Pals, one of Asheville’s oldest charities needs help bringing the joy of Christmas to the area’s needy children.
“It was like a third world country,” remembers Dusty Pless, this year’s Santa Pals coordinator as he recalled the extreme poverty he witnessed as a child. “I remember the smells, people using wood stoves and a mother scraping a knife across the last apple to feed a toddler and a baby.”
Pless grew up helping his father, Joe Pless, and other members of the Asheville Optimist Club collect and distribute toys for needy families in Asheville. He said the Optimist Club began Santa Pals when the Salvation Army asked them to help in 1936 during the depression. In those days Santa Pals had an office in downtown Asheville where they would collect the gifts, wrap them and load them onto trucks to distribute to the homes of the children in their program.
“I used to hang around the office and help stack up the toys, take out the trash or go to the corner drug store for snacks,” said Pless.
Today among the families who apply for assistance, Santa Pals is one of the most highly requested charities. They are completely supported by individual donations with no corporate sponsorships, providing toys for approximately 2000 area children.
The families come to the Santa Pals’ to apply for assistance. Club members interview the families to determine the extent of their need and review paperwork to verify the number of children. Each child receives three items. Later the families return to the office to pick out the toys the children most want.
“Our budget is $50,000,” Pless said. “Right now we have about $10,000 donated so far this year.”
The Club opens the Santa Pals office each Monday after Thanksgiving and operates Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm through Christmas Eve. The office is always donated by area property owners and the Optimist Club pays utility costs.
Pless remembers one year in the 1960’s they were unable to find any space in the downtown area.
“The city actually allowed us to put a trailer in front of the Vance Monument and we stored the toys in the police department,” he said.
This year the office is located at 105 Fairview Rd. in Asheville next to Care Partners Hospice Store. The office is manned by Natally Platt, Debbie Stewart and McKenzie Kanipe.
Though Santa Pals typically accepts monetary donations and purchases the toys through a distributor for non-profits, they occasionally receive donations of toys or even coats. Pless said each year they get a call from Jean Miller, who for the last 15 years, has faithfully donated coats and toys. Other people donate items such as bicycles which are not in their budget.
Though Pless said today he doesn’t see the hard times that were evident when he was young, people are still very much in need. He recalls a father who makes only $400 every two weeks and has six children from a violent mother. He talks about a single mother who lost her job and is now trying to make ends meet on only three days work a week.
“She was embarrassed and appreciative, not playing the victim,” Pless said. “You never know. Being sick or laid off can take you down real quick.”
Pless and other club members hope to be able to continue this charity which is so much a part of Asheville’s history. Anyone wishing to help or donate can contact Santa Pals or the Asheville Optimist Club at P.O. 1912, Asheville, NC 28802, visit santapals.org or friend them on Facebook. He also said people can call 828-258-3230 if they need someone to pick up a donation.