For some students in the Kenai area, Santa is Pat Vinison, the owner of the Albatross Restaurant and Lounge.
This time of year, the business' dining room is transformed into Santa's workshop. Piles of unwrapped toys and games are stacked on tables, chairs and the floor. New packages of socks and underwear dot the stacks. Turkeys fill the freezer.
The scene is nothing new for Vinison, her employees or their patrons. They have been helping make Christmas for local families for 20 years.
She said it all started when the Albatross unexpectedly came into some cash.
"People threw it in urinals," she explained. So they fished the money out, cleaned it up and put a fishbowl on the counter so people could throw their money someplace cleaner. Then she went to the local schools and asked how she could help. They suggested helping provide Christmas for needy families.
Vinison agreed. For the last two decades, she has collected, saved, and shopped for Kenai kids. This year, she and her elves (there were six shoppers in all) spent two days in Anchorage and four on the Peninsula trying to find the perfect presents for 43 kids. Most of the kids go to Kenai Middle School or Mountain View Elementary, although Vinison also shops for a few families that she knows personally.
Vinison's efforts are part of a district-wide Christmas drive. Mountain View's Kimb Remsen said she has been helping coordinate the drive for 19 years and Vinison has been an exceptional sponsor. "Pat is one of the biggest sponsors," she said.
Vinison said that Remsen and other people at the schools help coordinate donations from churches, the Salvation Army and local businesses so that every family gets what they need.
Vinison and her shoppers are armed with a spreadsheet of ages, genders, toy and color preferences, and clothing sizes when they go out shopping. Each kid gets two toys, two outfits, socks, underwear, a hat, gloves and shoes or boots if they need them. Families also get the fixings for a Christmas dinner. Vinison said she likes to make sure each family gets staples like flour and sugar with their food box.
By mid-December, Vinison is mostly done shopping and has shifted to sorting the presents for each child. This Friday, Vinison said that Remsen and her counterparts at other schools will pick up the presents and give them to the parents.
The toilet and fishbowl money no longer cover the costs, so Vinison has to find other ways to raise the money. In the early years, her husband Ernie Poole (now deceased) "practically used to do a shakedown," she said. If you went to the Albatross after Thanksgiving, you were going to get asked for a donation, she said. Over the years, they've brainstormed other fundraising ideas. Once, an employee put together a cookbook of favorite recipes from the Albatross. All the profits went to the Christmas drive.
These days, raising the money is a community affair, Vinison explained. And no shakedowns are required -- the project gets donations from individuals, bars and private organizations. For the last 14 years, the Albatross has held a pool tournament with donated prizes and an entry fee that supports the cause. More recently, she has hosted an annual auction.
"We started doing an auction and local people have donated things that they make," she said. People donate everything from birdhouses to pies. "Oh, name it, we've probably auctioned it off."
Despite the support, Vinison is still the project's champion. Decorating the restaurant portion of the Albatross are birdhouses sold at the auction and bought for her by her current husband, Bud.
"She just has helped us out for years," Remsen said.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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