By: Rebecca Peeler
On a rainy Wednesday morning, 40 preschoolers, all smiles and glee, burst through the doors of an office in the Financial District. They had good reason to be excited: they were about to meet Santa at a holiday party sponsored by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
The youngsters, who attend the Utopia Children’s Center in Harlem, were led into a conference room and instructed to take off their coats and sit on them. “This is your special seat,” one organizer told them. The children’s laughter and cheer filled the white-walled room with more color than a can of paint could.
As the children settled down, Alan Muraoka, 53, a Sesame Street cast member, and puppeteer Pam Arciero, 61, greeted them with holiday songs and knock-knock jokes, some delivered by Arciero’s Muppet character, Leona.
Muraoka, who helped with the Federation’s holiday party and toy drive last year, has been on the cast of Sesame Street for 17 years. He plays Alan, the owner of Hooper’s Store.
“I try to do charitable events, especially around this time of year,” he said. “We’re just the warm-up act. We get them centered and excited.”
And excited the children were as they awaited the main guest, Santa Claus. Party organizers used to just show a video clip before Santa’s appearance, said Joel Gibson, 60, a minister and the Federation’s faith initiative director who played Santa at the party.
Gibson said the nonprofit, which coordinates with organizers providing child care and other services for low-income families, now taps volunteers to perform opening acts.
As the group of 3- to 5-year-olds danced and laughed along with the performers, Muraoka and Arciero were on a mission to get a smile on every child’s face. “Victory is ours” shouted Muraoka when one girl finally flashed an approving smile.
Santa’s grand entrance brought the children to their feet. He took a seat in front of the room, and the children lined up to greet him and to receive their gifts. They waited patiently. Some were quiet, with their hands clasped in front of them, while others chatted.
As the children approached Santa they introduced themselves. “You know me last year, I came to see you,” said one girl. Others were not so outspoken and shied away from him, looking at Santa as if he was a mysterious creature.
Santa with the help of his two elves, gave each child two neatly-wrapped presents.
The Federation will distribute gifts to 20,000 children this year, said Karen Giacalone, who has coordinated the toy drive for 16 years. Even that many toys don’t meet the demand. “As economic disparity grows, the need gets greater,” said Giacalone, who likes toys that require children to use their imagination.
“I would much rather prefer art supplies, hard books, clothing for teens and ethnic dolls,” said Giacalone.
The children seemed to be imagining what was inside their gift package, which they clutched tightly as they moved around the room. Many shook the packages or held them close to their faces as if trying to peer inside. Some started to unwrap the packing to sneak a peak. The room was filled with smiles.
A three-person choir closed out the event by singing classics holiday tunes, including “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells.”
The concept of giving trickled down as the children offered items like chicken tenders from their lunch box, provided by the Federation, to parents, teachers and organizers.
Omar Dueno, 29, a parent said he was happy to attend the event. “It represents hope. I know my kid enjoyed it,” he said.
Keith Liddelow, 38, has been a teacher at Utopia Children’s Center for about five years. He said he appreciated how the party gave the children a chance to get out of Harlem and to see a different environment.
“Plus, it allows them to learn a little something about Christmas,” he said.
“What’s your favorite part of Christmas?” Antoinette Isabel-Jones, communications director, asked. “The presents!” the children shouted back.
“Thank you Santa!” they said waving good-bye to Santa Claus.