There’s no secret to how Max Morgan ‘06 became one of the first-ever student Santa Clauses for La Salle College High School’s wildly successful Secret Santa program almost two decades ago.
He had a suit. Granted, it was a bit musty and draped noticeably over his then 15-year-old body. But it was a suit nonetheless, and the program, which this year distributed wish-list gifts to nearly 300 disadvantaged cancer-stricken children and their siblings, was an upstart effort back then.
“It had been in my family since, like the 40s,” says Morgan, now a 34-year-old patent attorney living in Haddonfield, NJ. “There were two groups of about six kids each and we needed a suit for my group. I was only a sophomore, but I had the suit. So, I became Santa.’’
Morgan was a sophomore in 2003, when the program, begun by alum Jim McCloskey ‘64 and expanded exponentially over the years through the tireless stewardship of La Salle administrator Chris Carabello '82, was still in its infancy. With the help of alums like Morgan, the program grew to between 150 to 200 boys, with as many as 400 applying to be involved. The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced those numbers to be shrunk, and this year only juniors and seniors were eligible to be involved.
Still, almost all 35 of the Santa suits that Carabello has accumulated over the past two decades were put to use this past Christmas Eve, over an area that extended from Jim Thorpe to the Jersey Shore, distributing new toys purchased by La Salle families and alums to hematology and oncology patients of Saint Christopher's Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia and their families.
Sometime in the fall, the children being treated at Saint Christopher’s make wishes for Christmas gifts. The La Salle community, along with other generous families, purchase the gifts. The Mothers' Club wraps, tags and bags the gifts, which are stored at a Warminster warehouse made available by a generous alum, Jim Hasson ‘85. During the morning hours of Christmas Eve, the Santas, elves and their parents – along with alums like Morgan -- load up their trucks and SUVs and fan out. This year there were 33 routes in 13 counties, extending from Atlantic County to Carbon County and Mercer County to Berks County.
Some of the requested gifts are elaborate. Over 25 children received bikes, assembled by students and La Salle’s adult community of alums and parents.
“Some are cause for pause,” said Carabello, La Salle’s longtime Director of Marketing, Communications and Public Relations and a 1982 graduate of the school.
“The wishes are sometimes things that our boys take for granted. Children want a bed. And it's like OK, we're going to get a bed and then we're going to buy a mattress and sheets and pillows too. Because if you’re asking for a bed, then clearly the other things that go with it are either non-existent and/or in terrible condition. We build the bed; we make it up, and we carry it in just like that. And the reactions are incredible.’’
Over the program’s 21-year partnership with the Committee to Benefit the Children at Saint Christopher's Hospital for Children, Carabello’s pre-launch speech has made the same points:
Many of these families would not have much of a Christmas without this effort. And for all the children visited, Santa and his elves are as real as the gifts they deliver.
Mike Leary, a father to two La Salle students who has driven the shore route five times, witnesses that each time.
“Chris’ speech is one of the most inspirational things I have ever heard,’’ he says. “As much as they can’t play baseball or soccer or do a lot of things their friends are doing, they can tell all of their friends that Santa came to their house and played with them. And no one else gets to say that.’’
For the students, playing Santa requires a little preparation.
“I get the biggest pillows from my house,’’ says Michael Dukissis, a La Salle senior who played Santa for the second time this year. “And you have to work on the voice before you go out there. ‘Ho ho ho’ -- you really have to practice it. I even watch a few Christmas movies, just to get into the role.’’
“The little ones are in shock when Santa walks in,” says senior Luke Corcoran, who has been involved since entering the school. “They jump on his lap. It’s very fun.’’
“In that moment of giving you appreciate how meaningful it is to do this outreach,’’ says Eric Fryer, another senior who has participated since he was a freshman. “You get a lot of appreciation for your blessings… And you get to feel the appreciation coming back from the families as well.’’