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‘Mrs. Santa’ and her ‘elves’ prepare for another season of giving at the Spokane Guild School on Black Friday

November 24, 2018

The Christmas creep that has pushed Black Friday shopping into the afternoon hours of Thanksgiving Day has affected all bargain hunters.

Including one who fancies the nickname “Mrs. Santa.”

“If you want the excellent toys that are expensive for a reasonable price, you have to go out the time that they’re available,” said Marilyn Henderson, the longtime former program director for the Spokane Guild School. “That’s usually on Thanksgiving.”

Every Christmas going back more than two decades, Henderson has transformed the women’s locker room at the Guild School, former home of Garland Elementary School, into a kind of merry marketplace for families that receive services from the nonprofit organization.

The school has dubbed her “Mrs. Santa” and she receives help each year from family members she calls “elves,” all of whom pitch in to run the giveaway that begins Dec. 3 this year and will end Dec. 20. The parents of students receive a letter from Henderson, who signs her name as Kris Kringle’s spouse, indicating they can select a toy free of charge for each of their children, whether they receive services through the school or not.

“I certainly don’t want any kiddo just getting a gift, and not getting a gift for the others,” Henderson said.

Susan Naccarato picked out toys for her two children last year from the workshop. Her 3-year-old son, Ben, received therapy for four hours a week at the guild school and received a Paw Patrol blanket. His adopted sister, Emme, also 3, received a Disney princess castle.

“There was so much to choose from. Little tiny things to pretty extravagant things,” Naccarato said.

Naccarato said her family isn’t as hard-pressed financially as some of the others who receive services at the Guild School. Still, she said, Henderson has worked to create a “magical” option for families that need a little extra help for the holidays.

“It was humbling, and very much appreciated,” she said. “It’s really special.”

Stocking the room with toys was an eight-hour affair Thursday afternoon, with Henderson receiving help from her granddaughter, 13-year-old Anastasia Martinez, and her daughter Tammy Henderson. The three unpacked a trove of toys Friday morning, including princess castles, trampolines and a stuffed animal known as a “Fur Real Friend” that cooed automatically when Martinez switched on the lights in the school’s gymnasium.

Martinez said she’d served as toy selector for a few years on the shopping trips, which began at 3 p.m. Thursday and ended for the family right around 11 p.m.

“She kind of depends on me to pick out certain toys, because I’m younger,” Martinez said. “But, as I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten harder because I’m not as young. We just try to get whatever looks fun.”

The Black Friday (or Thursday) deals allow Marilyn Henderson to stretch the $4,000 she gets in donations further. She said she tries to keep each item under $20, with the expectation that “Mrs. Santa’s Workshop,” as its known, will have to serve about 400 children.

“These were $35, and we got them for about, what, $15?” Henderson asked Martinez, holding up a Disney princess playset. “Isn’t that a beautiful gift, to give your little girl?”

Henderson said she started the tradition shortly after the Guild School moved to the Garland school in 1982. It started with a couple of tables of toys just for the most economically strapped families, but Henderson kept growing it, along with help from her three sisters and other extended family. That has included purchasing garage and estate sale decorations for the workshop, which dangle from the ceilings and wooden shelves the family built to show off the toys. A radio in the corner is constantly tuned to the holiday hits station.

This year’s whirlwind shopping tour included stops at Kohl’s, Walmart and J.C. Penny, all of which opened their doors a day before the traditional heavy shopping holiday. This year marked the first that Toys ’R Us, which declared bankruptcy late last year and shuttered its stores, including a location in Spokane Valley, this summer.

The Thursday schedule works for the family, Henderson said, because they eat early on Thanksgiving and make their plan days in advance to visit all the stores that open on the holiday.

“We go and do this together as a family,” Tammy Henderson said.

“And the boys go and watch football,” Marilyn Henderson said, laughing.

Marilyn Henderson said her motivation for the giveaway came from her own childhood, when some lean years kept her family from having the type of Christmas she hopes the Mrs. Santa’s Workshop provides for others.

“When I was little, I had some tougher times, as far as Christmas goes,” Marilyn Henderson said. “I feel it’s very important for children to have one toy under the Christmas tree.”

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