Chief elf, local Santa, orchestrator – Tom Anderson makes Christmas happen

Special to The HeraldDecember 15, 2012 

  • Want to help? To donate new, unwrapped toys, contact: • United Way of York County office, 226 Northpark Drive, Suite 100, Rock Hill • All York County YMCA branches in Clover, Fort Mill, Rock Hill and York • WRHI/Interstate 107 radio studios, 142 N. Confederate Ave., Rock Hill To donate money: • Make a tax-deductible contribution online at unitedwayofyc.org • Checks – made out to The Herald’s “Empty Stocking Fund” or “Toys for Happiness” – can be mailed to the United Way of York County S.C., P.O. Box 925, Rock Hill, SC, 29731. • Drop off monetary contributions at the United Way office, 226 Northpark Drive, Suite 100, Rock Hill, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. For information, call 803-324-2735.

— Tom Anderson is the United Way of York County’s chief elf, though he prefers to be called “warehouse manager.”

He volunteers his days and evenings overseeing the collection and distribution of toys for 1,600 needy families for the Sleigh Bell Network – a team of local companies and agencies working together to try to make Christmas a little merrier for those families.

He gathers, sorts and packs. He oversees and directs. He is quality control. He distributes.

In return, he receives the best gift of all – heartfelt thanks from families who are many times moved to tears at the generosity of others.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Anderson said. “This is what I want to do.”

Organizers say that without the 64-year-old retired nursery and garden center owner, Christmas would not be as bright for thousands of local children who rely on the Sleigh Bell Network for gifts under the tree.

“He’s our local Santa,” said Debbie Hayworth, president of the United Way of York County, which helps coordinate the Sleigh Bell Network’s efforts. “He is beyond the chief elf – he takes elfhood to a management level.”

For four years, Anderson has spent pretty much every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas – except Sundays – volunteering at the United Way’s warehouse, what he said resembles “Santa’s workshop.” This year, his work started on Dec. 3.

“He exemplifies caring and a giving spirit. He is willing to give his time every day,” Hayworth said. “He works every day, all day long, and comes back in the evenings.”

Using applications, a database and a team of volunteers, Anderson manages the warehouse at the Rock Hill schools’ Flexible Learning Center off Albright Road.

Anyone can donate to the Sleigh Bell Network, which accepts new toys and monetary donations either by mail or at locations across the county.

The United Way is asking the community to help make sure everyone who applied for Christmas assistance receives gifts to give their children.

Anderson receives toys from the public and makes sure Christmas morning will be bright for the girls and boys on his list. Toys go to children up to age 14.

Anderson enjoys his work. He was intrigued by the warehouse operation for years as he dropped off toys and bicycles. He decided to volunteer and in his first year in the warehouse, he was taken aback by the gratitude.

“I can’t tell you what it means when the parents – and sometimes the children are there – and we bring a big bag of toys and maybe a bicycle or a big kitchen set,” he said. “These parents just smile from ear to ear.

“There are tears of joy. … It just warms the heart.”

But the need is great. Last week, Anderson worried that there would not be enough toys and bicycles for children ages 9 to 14.

“We are very low,” he said. “We need to get the community to step up to help in that age bracket.”

Anderson, who lives along McConnells Highway, feels his volunteer position is a way to give back to the community he loves. He feels he has lived a blessed life.

“I’m very proud to be part of a community that helps itself in times of need,” he said. “I see it in sponsorships. I see it in families coming in to help pull the gifts on their free Saturday.”

The Herald’s Empty Stocking Fund, which raises money to support the effort, is a member of the network along with Toys for Happiness, Toys for Tots, The Salvation Army and Second Harvest Food Bank.

The United Way of York County coordinates the annual mission with a database of families in need. A goal is to ensure no services are duplicated for an applicant. Last year, 3,400 children were served.

The toys at the warehouse are sorted onto tables according to gender and age. For girls, princesses, dollhouses and shopping carts are popular. The boys’ tables are filled with cars, action figures and sports equipment. There are also tables covered with puzzles and games.

Volunteers, led by Anderson, pack requested items for the children from their lists.

“When you’re packing for 1,600 families, you need to make sure you are doing it right,” Hayworth said. “Tom is definitely a wonderful example of someone bringing happiness to others and bringing smiles to children’s faces.”

His work will end after the distribution days on Thursday and Friday. He will know just what Christmas gifts to buy his grandchildren, ages 6 and 3.

Trina Ricks, 55, the United Way’s volunteer coordinator, said Anderson has been an inspiration. She admires his patience, organization and commitment.

“This is someone who absolutely enjoys what he is doing,” she said. “You feel honored to be next to him. At least, I do.”

She is pleasantly surprised each morning when Anderson has the warehouse set up for the volunteers when they arrive. He stays into the late afternoon.

Ricks knows Anderson does not like being called the “chief elf,” so she has other names for him.

“I have named him the orchestrator,” she said. “He has orchestrated everything. He perfects the system. He’s my conductor.”

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