SIU Assistant Vice President Joe Vincenzo has unfailing confidence in Seafarers, but even he didn’t know what to expect late last year when it was time for the union’s annual participation in a charitable drive for U.S. military families in the Pacific Northwest.
His faith proved well-founded, however, as rank-and-file members didn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic break their long streak of supporting Santa’s Castle. The project raises donations of toys and other gifts to U.S. military families (primarily E-4 and below) from Joint Base Lewis- McChord (JBLM), Washington, and from other bases.
Seafarers stepped up with approximately $6,400 worth of gifts, and they got an assist from SIU headquarters personnel after a wrinkle that proved particularly distasteful. Someone broke into the hall and swiped a number of higher-end electronic items.
“The break-in was a kick in the teeth, but then something interesting happened,” Vincenzo said. “Donations began to pour in as a direct response, not only from members but also from our executive board and staff at headquarters. We quickly made up the difference and I even received a bit of advice on how best to handle another possible future visitation from the thief. Let’s just say it was good advice from the old school!” (In the interim, security at the hall has been significantly enhanced.)
Similarly, Retired Recertified Bosun Dana Cella, a longtime contributor to the yearly endeavor, expressed displeasure about the stolen items but remained focused on the bigger picture.
“The break-in was disgusting,” he said. “To have them steal charitable gifts…. They were bloody well scumbags just trying to make a fast buck.
“But this is a great program,” he continued, “and I’m going to contribute to it as long as possible. I support it because it’s helping our servicemen and their kids. The SIU is a family-oriented organization, and we respect other families.”
Retired Recertified Steward Shawn Fujiwara also is a longtime backer of Santa’s Castle. He said the response to the break-in “just shows that even though there’s evil in the world, there’s still good. My donation arrived the same day, and Joe said that kind of softened the blow…. I’ve always believed in Santa’s Castle.”
Anita Vargo, vice president of purchasing at Santa’s Castle, said her organization exhausted every donation while supporting 1,245 families (including more than 2,600 children). “We worked with 255 volunteers who logged more than 4,000 volunteer hours,” she said.
As for the SIU’s participation, Vargo said she “didn’t know for sure, due to the pandemic, but Joe, our angel, said they still wanted to support it, and they did. They were a godsend. We’re always so grateful to know we can depend on the Seafarers International Union.”
In 2007 and 2008, Tacoma-area Seafarers teamed up to support Toys for Tots during the winter holidays. Then, in 2009, they shifted to Santa’s Castle, which is a private, non-profit organization.
“The move had a lot to do with my own prior service and affinity for the military, along with the close ties between the SIU and the military,” recalled Vincenzo, who served in the U.S. Army. “It has been a perfect fit, and since then we have donated a collective total of more than $100,000.” Despite that history, he said, “With all of the hardship and heartache of 2020, we didn’t know what to expect or even if we should put out the Santa’s Castle sign and kitty. We thought it may be something of a ‘Hail Mary,’ but donations came in even though the foot traffic in the hall was down.”
One thing that fell victim to the pandemic was the associated luncheon normally hosted by the SIU for military personnel, Seafarers, Santa’s Castle employees and others. Typically, that gathering is tied in with loading the donations into trucks and vans. All concerned are hopeful, however, that the gathering will take place next time.
Fujiwara, for one, is counting on it for several reasons, not the least of which involves a locally renowned elf costume that he described as “my second uniform. It’ll be ready next December, and I know the SIU will step up again, like always.