Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Rita Swiener and Her 'Santa's Helpers' Have Been Giving Gifts to Needy Families for 50 Years

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Rita Swiener and Her 'Santa's Helpers' Have Been Giving Gifts to Needy Families for 50 Years

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis asked Rita Swiener if the students' Evening Council could provide Christmas gifts to a poor family who had "fallen through the cracks."

Swiener, the council president, agreed.

The next year, the council decided not to participate, Swiener recalls. So she began helping the family on her own. Swiener, now 77, a Pittsburgh native who is Jewish, still remembers Hanukkahs with no gifts as she grew up, and resolved that other children should have at least a few gifts.

"That's why I do it -- so these kids feel valued," she said.

Swiener's act would begin five decades of helping to ensure that children living in poverty and their families have at least a few gifts at Christmas. The group she founded, Santa's Helpers Inc., says it has delivered more than 900,000 gifts to more than 31,000 families.

Swiener was nominated by two different people this year in the Thanks for Giving campaign honoring volunteers.

She said the group would serve just over 600 families this Christmas. Each child gets six gifts, including three books and an age-appropriate educational toy.

The group also provides Hanukkah gifts to a handful of families and another round of gift-giving through "Christmas in July." And it's all done on an income of roughly $40,000 in 2017 in donations and a few grants, said Jeff Waldman, president of the board.

While helping that original family, Swiener heard about more children from her friend, Paul Civili, who was teaching at Holy Trinity Catholic School in north St. Louis at the time.

From there Swiener's group has grown "exponentially," said Civili, a longtime volunteer who is assistant to Swiener, who is executive director.

After outgrowing Swiener's living room and bouncing from place to place, Swiener's group has settled in warehouse space donated to them by Cee Kay Supply, on Manchester Avenue in St. …

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