Every year around this time, Martha Molina joins her mother, her four children, and other family members at a vibrant Christmas party that is every child’s dream.
Guests make friends, assemble crafts, eat plenty of food, and enjoy dancing to music with a crowd that includes all ages. Santa holds court and visits with youngsters, and each family receives presents before they leave.
The gathering has grown so much over the years—it now attracts 1,200 people, including 700 children—that it’s held at the Minneapolis Convention Center. If you’re looking for a holiday bash that pulls out all the stops, this is it.
It’s the Notre Dame Club of Minnesota’s annual Christmas party, an event that allows the club to partner with Centro Tyrone Guzman, a non-profit organization serving underprivileged Latino families in the Twin Cities.
“I’m really happy because it’s a time for the family to get together,” says Molina, speaking through a translator. She has been taking her children for the last seven years and attended this year’s party on Dec. 9.
“I’m very thankful to all the Centro and Notre Dame volunteers for making this possible,” she says. “This is the only time that our family gets together because of work … it’s great to see that my kids are happy and also doing things that they wouldn’t normally do.”
A Joyous Gathering for All Ages
That’s the idea, says Mark Zoia ’92, who’s helped the Minnesota club organize the party for the past 10 years.
“Our goal for this event is to bring together the many Latino families served by Centro Tyrone Guzman and create a positive Christmas memory for their community,” Zoia says. “The focus is not on the gifts. It’s on creating an authentic Christmas experience—joining the Centro community and our ND club to have fun together creating crafts, listening and dancing to traditional music, and enjoying Latino treats.”
A group of about 50 volunteers gathers the night before the party to assemble gift bags customized with age-appropriate presents from Toys for Tots for each of the guest families who will attend. When the big day arrives, there’s plenty of activities for everyone to enjoy together.
“It’s fun to be able to see the different generations,” Zoia says. “Many times, the families will have grandparents, parents, and children at the event. And while it’s humbling to realize this might be their Christmas, it’s also heartening to see how well the different generations treat each other and look out for each other. Every year the volunteers comment on how large the group is and how kind everyone is to each other.”
Santa’s on His Way
No Christmas would be complete without a visit from Santa. And Bert Koehler ’93, who dresses as Santa for the party, is renowned for his attention to detail. For instance, he relies on a friend to make his clothing, rather than buying off the rack. When the downtown Macy’s (formerly Dayton’s) store closed earlier this year, friends bought its iconic Santa chair as a gift for him, knowing he'd welcome the opportunity to use it. And he’d never even think of faking the beard. He grows—and dyes—his own.
“My wife is actually not fond of the beard,” he says. “So I start growing it sometime between Father’s Day and the Fourth of July. And somewhere in early-to-mid-November I will start bleaching it. And usually by the first or second weekend in December I start seeing children as Santa Claus, with the highlight being the Centro Christmas party.
“I fell in love doing Santa Claus for Centro that first time. I was on cloud nine for I don’t know how many days afterward. There were so many children. You have kids that want everything from the iPhone to Legos to kids that say, ‘Santa, I’m good, but mom needs a coat.’ And it’s really humbling being Santa for Centro. It’s awesome. Outside of being a dad, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done with my life. It really is amazingly rewarding … Every year there’s usually one or two moments where you’ve got to fight back the tears because it can get very, very emotional.”
A Legacy of Giving Back
The Christmas party is a longstanding tradition with the Notre Dame Club of Minnesota, which has partnered with various organizations over the 30 years it has hosted the event. Since 2003, it has worked with Centro. Each year, club members raise the five figures needed to pay for the gathering, which continues to grow.
“Mark and the team have done a fantastic job,” says Kristin Koch ’04, the club’s president. “It’s pretty amazing. It’s definitely our biggest service event of the year. I know the families definitely appreciate it. It’s a very rewarding experience for the 150 club volunteers.”
The party is one of more than 1,400 service projects organized each year by members of the approximately 270 Notre Dame clubs around the world. Members of these clubs—a mix of alumni and friends of the University—are always looking for ways to lend a hand and make a difference in their local communities.
And in the Twin Cities, Notre Dame volunteers have found a way to do just that, providing a fun and inviting celebration for families who need Christmas cheer.
“Many of the families that we invite to the party are in need of the support,” says Roxana Linares, Centro’s executive director. “Many are recent immigrants who don’t have a lot of income. Having the opportunity to bring their kids to an environment where they can celebrate Christmas with their families and with volunteers who are so thoughtful is just perfect. It’s just such a beautiful gift that Notre Dame gives to the community.”
To learn how you can help make a difference with your local Notre Dame club, please visit my.nd.edu/clubs.