Last year, University of California, San Diego senior Katy Pham was fortunate to buy, wrap and deliver presents to a family in need in time for the Christmas holiday. “It was so incredibly inspiring to see how much love and care the parents have for their families,” Pham said. “When we delivered the gifts, the family was so excited and happy to see us and they couldn’t stop thanking us. I will never forget the feeling I had that day––the feeling that I knew I was able to make a difference in someone else’s life. It was then that I truly realized the importance of volunteering and giving back.”
Pham’s inspiring experience was made possible because she and other members of the campus’s student organization MEMO adopted a family through Operation Santa, an initiative by UC San Diego’s Alpha Phi Omega, a coed service fraternity dedicated to community service and leadership.
Since 2007, Operation Santa has provided Christmas celebrations for 731 San Diego families who are facing financial hardship. Many of the families served by Operation Santa are led by single mothers as well as those who are victims of domestic violence, facing illness, experiencing the loss of a family member or struggling financially.
Each year, Alpha Phi Omega encourages community members to nominate families in need and gives individuals and organizations the opportunity to participate as “adopters.” Operation Santa matches families with adopters who, after receiving the nominated family’s gift wish list, buy, wrap and deliver holiday presents to families by Dec. 24.
As Operation Santa has grown over the years, Alpha Phi Omega has seen a rise in the number of families nominated to receive help during the holiday season; however, the number of nominated families continues to outpace adopters: the ratio of nomination applications to adoption applications is 4 to 1.
“Participating in Operation Santa as an adopter is a wonderful way to give back to the San Diego community and help families in need during the holiday season,” said Kelsey Ma, chair of Operation Santa. “We would love to help all the families who are nominated, but it’s not possible without more help from people who want to adopt a family this year.”
To participate in the program is easy: people can apply under the “Adopt a Family” tab on the organization’s website, operationsantasd.org. The deadline to apply this year has been extended to Nov. 30.
“Adopters have the choice of personally delivering the gifts to the families and it’s an incredibly rewarding experience to see the joy in the children’s faces,” Ma added. “In addition, people can also become involved in Operation Santa by providing monetary and non-monetary donations, such as toys and other necessities…If it weren’t for the generosity of others in the UC San Diego and local community, we wouldn’t be able to achieve our goal of helping as many kids and families as possible experience a true Christmas with gifts, food and joy.”
Operation Santa helped brighten the Christmas holiday for Ericka, a 2012 nominee, and her family.
Earlier that year, Ericka was diagnosed with leukemia and had to spend over a month and a half in the hospital. “I was very sick and unable to return to work and [didn’t know when] I might return to work,” Ericka said. “I am a single mother and the holidays sometimes are tough but I had never been in such a hard position, especially with the holidays fast approaching. [However], there were a few special people that were a part of Operation Santa that came to our home just before Christmas and brought my kids and I some very special and thoughtful gifts.”
She added, “My kids went through so much while I was sick and for that moment, I saw their faces light up with happiness and surprise. As a parent, just seeing my kids so ecstatic made me feel such a sense of relief. [I thank] Operation Santa so much for the thought, time and compassion the team put into providing and making a special Christmas for my family and I.”
Many adopters, like students in MEMO, another service-oriented student group, adopted a family last year and have again this year. “We had such an amazing time collaborating on planning what to get for the family, buying and delivering the gifts that it naturally became one of our annual service opportunities,” Pham, a Thurgood Marshal College student, said.
Unlike other nonprofits, Operation Santa is completely run by college students who are fueled by a desire to serve the community, according to Ma, a junior also at Thurgood Marshal College.
Alpha Phi Omega is one of many UC San Diego service-oriented student organizations. UC San Diego has more than 600 registered student organizations—over 90 organizations have a primary focus on service. In 2015, a total of 17,234 students completed 3,110,520 hours of community service. For the sixth consecutive year, the university has been recognized by Washington Monthly as the nation’s top college in rankings measuring “what colleges are doing for the country.”