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Islanders busy this season making Christmas special for everyone

By Staff | Dec 24, 2014

Friends Who Care volunteers assembled gifts for wrapping day. CRAIG GARRETT

Santa Claus again has plenty of elves in Sanibel.

Along with churches, social agencies and nonprofits, the island’s Friends Who Care group has taken a lead in providing holiday cheer to children, seniors and families in greatest need.

The group since 1983 has provided help, gifts and funds, anonymously, its volunteers sharing time, even arrayed in hot Santa gear, in delivering holiday gifts and goodwill.

One of the avenues in gift delivery was the Dec. 23 Santa Run, which annually sends drivers in full Santa outfits with carloads of gifts to hand deliver them. One Santa in last year’s run, Ken Burgener, said children were speechless at his arrival, in full accoutrement, beard, bells and jolly spirit.

“They’re so excited, they can’t talk,” said Burgener, appearing as Santa’s helper at a Dec. 17 holiday concert at an island childcare center. “It really is fun.”

Friends Who Care, Inc. has evolved over 30 years to include the gift collection program that places the names of the families, seniors and kids at the post office, a fire station and select businesses in the island. Churches, social agencies and schools provide names to the group, said Tom Louwers, the group’s co-founder. Surprisingly in a place like Sanibel, the list of those in need is nearly as long as the one in Santa’s day job, he said. Donors provide new gifts, which are assembled in stacks at the Sanibel Community House and wrapped by a corps of volunteers using dozens of rolls of wrap, ribbon and tape.

Gifts are assigned according to age and need, preliminarily laid out on tables with the names of the recipients on a card. Volunteers track what each child or family receives, only to ensure there’s no duplication in following years.

Service groups contribute time and cash to the effort, with Bailey’s General and Jerry’s stores, Realtors and island churches supplying time, food and the other items that bolster the volunteer teams and make Christmas special for every island family, Louwers said.