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Operation Santa Claus thrives on generosity

| Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008

Without Operation Santa Claus, the Fusco family's Christmas would be like any other day.

Marlene Fusco credits the volunteer charity program run by Tribune-Review Publishing Co., parent to the Valley News Dispatch, and Salvation Army with making her family's holidays truly special.

"We'd probably just have a regular dinner, like we will tonight," she said.

The food donation not only gives her three children the sense of a special day, but it allows her husband, Michael, to cook a large meal for the family, which lives in Arnold.

"It really feels like we have a feast, and it's all thanks to the meal," Fusco said. This will be the eighth meal her family has received through the New Kensington Salvation Army.

"They feel people's kindness and are inspired to help out the same way, to pass on their happiness in the next year."

Operation Santa Claus President Jeanne Siecinski hopes to raise $126,000 to provide meals and age-appropriate books to 8,577 families in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Local Salvation Army corps manage applications and delivery, and Tribune-Review and Valley News Dispatch readers can donate via coupons printed daily in each paper. The effort has raised more than $2.5 million over 25 years.

Three local Salvation Army corps -- Allegheny Valley, Kiski Valley and New Kensington -- are participating to ensure benefits for Alle-Kiski Valley families. About 1,000 families in the Valley will receive more than $16,000 in food and books. About $16.50 pays for one family's meal. All books are donated.

Siecinski said most of the donations come from Westmoreland County, and benefits are distributed on the basis of need. Many schools, civic organizations and businesses make Operation Santa Claus their annual fundraising effort for the Christmas season.

Grocery bags will be filled with a gift certificate for a meat item of the family's choice, plus ready-to-make hot cocoa, scalloped potatoes, chicken stuffing mix, snack crackers, holiday cookies, red and green gelatin, sliced peaches, green beans, corn, applesauce and corn muffin mix.

Captain Elvie Carter, commanding officer of the New Kensington and Kiski Valley corps, said the number of people donating to Operation Santa Claus is increasing, but the total amount of money is holding steady.

"People's resources are limited, especially this time of year," he said. "People are making choices whether to pay a bill or eat, but a lot of our beneficiaries can't make a choice like that.

"Without this program, we wouldn't be able to feed many of the families that apply for assistance."

Carter said the program has been so consistent that people expect to get the dinners and rely on the food for their holiday dinners.

"It would be difficult to replace the effect it has on many, many families if this program didn't continue," he said.

Judy Mizikar, owner of Just Miniature Scales in Greensburg, organizes group fundraising efforts, which yielded $3,500 last year.

Marlene Fusco and her family will wait until their holiday dinner arrives for the cranberry sauce they crave each year.

'When we have family visiting, it's wonderful to have a proper meal for them, and Operation Santa Claus does that for my family," she said. "We don't have to worry about a great meal that day."

Additional Information:

Operation Santa Claus

Operation Santa Claus benefits local needy families who have applied to local Salvation Army Chapters by providing ingredients for a holiday dinner, a voucher for meat at a local grocery store and age-appropriate books for children. Donations, made out to Operation Santa Claus, should be addressed to: Valley News Dispatch, 210 Fourth Ave., Tarentum, Pa., 15084. Book donations can be dropped off at the Tarentum office as well.

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