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Operation Santa Claus: Program brightens Christmas for families

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Dawn Smith, volunteer coordinator of the Operation Santa program for the Currituck Department of Social Services, carries a bagful of toys to a group of families at the Currituck DSS office, Wednesday. The Operation Santa program aims to help 540 kids receive Christmas assistance this year.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, December 14, 2018

CURRITUCK — Christmas gifts are more than paper and plastic and gadgetry; they're a message that people are remembered, and valued.

That's why Operation Santa Claus continues in full force in Currituck County, and why Dawn Smith continues to lead the major gift-giving program for families in need.

Smith and other volunteers handed out gifts to dozens of families at the Currituck Department of Social Services office on Wednesday. The program aims to distribute gifts to more than 500 kids in need this year, though she said some 120 are still without sponsors.

Operation Santa Claus is a program that DSS has overseen since the 1980s, according to Currituck DSS Director Samantha Hurd, and it benefits low-income children, foster children, elderly and disabled adults. The program serves families who receive DSS benefits and those who don't. 

Smith knows well how Christmas gifts can lift spirits, because they lifted hers once.

Smith, 49, is a former paramedic and firefighter for Currituck County Emergency Medical Services and the Lower Currituck Volunteer Fire Department. She was injured and left disabled after an injury in 2000. Things got hard in 2002, and the mother of two wasn't sure what kind of Christmas her kids would have.

“It was a very low point in my life,” she said.

Then someone entered her kids' names into Operation Santa Claus, and she got a call from “Mrs. Claus” — she still doesn't know her real name — asking for information on gifts for her kids.

“When they showed up, they filled the entire living room with presents,” some of them handmade, Smith said.

It was an amazing moment, she said, and she decided to start supporting the program herself.

“I just wanted to give someone else that same feeling,” Smith said, adding she's in her sixth year of overseeing the program. It bolsters many people when they feel like they're facing hard times alone, she explained.

The program now serves hundreds of kids every year, and, thanks to sponsors and donors, it tries to give every child not just gifts, but a good Christmas, Smith said. Families have cried and hugged her when she delivers gifts — sometimes dropping them off at households even late into Christmas Eve.

In one memorable delivery, Smith said her son helped her deliver gifts. They tried to be quiet — Santa doesn't make a ruckus — but the mother's young daughter still heard the bell on her son’s hat jingle. That's how she knew Santa hadn't forgotten them, the girl later told her mom.

“That's what this is all about,” Smith said.

Smith said 120 kids are still without sponsors, and she welcomed calls from anyone looking to help, adding she'll take sponsors as late as Christmas Eve.

Hurd said Smith's work for the program is “extraordinary,” and praised her for the work she pours into the program. The response from families over the years has been “tremendous,” she added.

The deadline to request gifts has passed, but anyone who wants more information, including how to donate or sponsor families, may call or email Smith at 267-1140 or dawnsmith252@gmail.com.

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