One Christmas Eve, Thomas Doty carried a bag full of wrapped presents to the front door of a low-income Hilton Head Island family that had requested help for the holidays.
Eyeing Doty right back were two young children huddled at the top of the stairs. Those two kids might very well have thought Santa was just a man with a car who delivered toys by storm door rather than chimney, the board member of The Deep Well Project later thought.
This year, the Hilton Head charity is doing things a little differently.
By holding its first Santa Shop for families in need, Deep Well hopes to restore some of the mystery of Christmas for about 1,000 local children, while also allowing parents more dignity and control in choosing their gifts.
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Before, "there was a sense that Santa is somebody else and it's not like it's a typical Christmas," Doty said. "We're finding this approach makes sense."
Qualifying low-income families will be able to visit the shop beginning Dec. 4 and pick out toys, books and clothing during a morning or afternoon session.
The new system is a departure for Deep Well. For years, the organization organized two Christmas programs -- Adopt-A-Family, in which people purchased presents and delivered them to a designated home; and a "bag-it-and-give-it" program, in which those families could pick up a prepared bag of gifts from Deep Well.
While both approaches helped make the holidays possible for hundreds of families, there was room for improvement, Doty said. Occasionally, the donations did not match children's needs or interests. Some parents would leave Deep Well with just a couple of gifts while watching others tote a much larger bounty, said operation manager Sherry Pritchard.
"There was tremendous inequity," Doty said.
After assessing all of its programs earlier this year, Deep Well decided to create the Santa Shop. This year, qualifying parents will be able to do their own Christmas shopping, selecting a few toys, a book, one outfit or piece of outerwear, one voucher for a pair of shoes and a bag of stocking stuffers per child.
The Country Club of Hilton Head, which previously adopted about 50 families each year, said it supports the change. Pattie Michie, the club consul, won't wonder anymore whether donated clothing fits or if gifts were useful.
"I think letting the families come in and pick makes it more personal," she said.
Now, the organization's only challenge will be encouraging donors to drop off toys, games and clothing by the end of November. Several groups have already stepped up with promises to donate early, Pritchard said.
"Any time something's new, it's hard," Pritchard said. "But I really think it's going to be a much better program."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.