Tom Guthrie is one of those people who says “it takes a village” to get things done. That village is Norwalk which is honoring him as its Citizen of the Year for his volunteer role as Norwalk Santa. The recognition was presented by the Norwalk Area Chamber of Commerce at its 27th Annual Awards Celebration on January 24 at Echo Valley Country Club.
“I am honored by this recognition, but it’s not just me,” Guthrie said. “It does take a village and without that, Norwalk Santa would not be possible.”
As Norwalk Santa, Guthrie is the hub of a community project which helped 31 families during the 2019 Christmas season – and that includes 72 kids who received toys and treats they might not have had. Among the gifts were 17 bicycles that Norwalk resident Mike Leo helped arranged for Norwalk Santa. The families were referred to Guthrie through an informal network of Norwalk residents who know he’s a helping hand for those in need.
The experience that planted the idea to become Norwalk Santa began several years ago when a pediatric nurse, who recognized his white-bearded Santa attributes, asked him to accompany her on a visit to the home of a seriously ill young boy. “I was really there for the parents and the brother but I felt something special. I left that house a changed person and something told me I wanted to help wherever I could,” he said.
A friend mentioned a Facebook posting related to a family’s need for assistance but which was not getting a good response. “I asked if I could step in and put something on my page,” he said.
“In just a few days the response was overwhelming and I knew I had to do something.”
He and a friend created the Norwalk Santa concept and during the first Christmas season five families received toys and food thanks to donations from Norwalk residents. The next year it was 15 families and the total more than doubled in 2019 with 31 families.
“The neatest thing is that as our requests have grown each year, so have the number of people getting involved and giving,” he said. “I remember at one point one year I was getting nervous that we couldn’t find support, but miracles happen. It seems like the number of requests and the number of people stepping up to help grow at the same pace.”
Guthrie credits much of the success of Norwalk Santa to a friend Meg Oswald Blunk who assisted for several years, including overseeing photo shoots of Norwalk Santa with area kids, helping with gift wrapping parties and other elements of the project. “Meg, who died in 2019, was a tremendous resource who made a wonderful difference for so many in Norwalk,” he said. “We miss her because she helped bring joy to so many families here. She had a contagious smile and was especially good with little kids who were nervous around Santa.”
Norwalk Santa doesn’t disappear after the Christmas season but is available year-round, posting “This Just In…” messages on his own Facebook page describing a need, frequently for furniture and household supplies that are needed by families displaced, often for complex reasons, who need to set up a household on short notice. Most of the furniture, appliances and other items come from families who’ve alerted Guthrie that they have things someone else could use and Norwalk Santa helps make the connection.
Donors know to drop off requested items at Gregg Young Chevrolet where Guthrie works. “People can drive right in and that’s especially convenient for the people picking up items they need. The guys at Gregg Young are so helpful, too, and they tell me they love to see the smiles on people who are getting helped through Norwalk Santa.”
The involvement by the Gregg Young Chevrolet staff in Norwalk Santa activities is one reason the dealership was named Business of the Year for 2019 by the Norwalk Area Chamber of Commerce.
Another project led by Norwalk Santa with support from Aaron DeKock and Amanda Fletcher led to community donations of $10,000 to cover unpaid school lunch fees for Norwalk students whose families could not afford them. That project drew attention from other communities and Guthrie hopes to encourage other area communities to create their own volunteer Santa projects.
Though he is Norwalk Santa year-round, Guthrie becomes most visible in the weeks before Christmas. This past December he was Santa at the Norwalk Easter Public Library’s holiday event. He also dons his Santa suit for an occasional motorcycle ride but his favorite experience involves trips for groceries. “I’ll put on my Santa hat when I go to the store and I’ll see little kids walking by me – and walking by me again – and looking at me. I’ll smile at them and say ‘You better be good.’”
Norwalk parents must appreciate those interactions with their children, another reason Tom Guthrie as Norwalk Santa is Norwalk’s Citizen of the Year.