The COVID-19 pandemic surely has induced innumerable “bah, humbug!” moments, but nothing has diminished the SIU’s enthusiastic backing of an annual philanthropic project benefiting U.S. military families at Christmastime.
The yearly outreach known as Santa’s Castle has become a staple for Tacoma, Washington-area Seafarers, who’ve backed it for more than a dozen years. Santa’s Castle generates donations of toys and other gifts to U.S. military families (mainly E-4 and below) from Joint Base Lewis- McChord (JBLM), Washington, and from other bases.
For 2021, the SIU stepped up with donations worth approximately $8,000. Most of the contributions came from rank-and-file members, but many others chipped in, including members of the union’s executive board, pensioners, and officials from SIU-contracted Crowley Maritime and TOTE Services, respectively.
The union also hosted a luncheon on Dec. 23 for Santa’s Castle representatives, SIU members, retirees and family members, and other guests. (The luncheon typically coincides with loading donations into trucks and vans, but that gathering was skipped in 2020, for precautionary reasons.)
“This was yet another good year for Tacoma Seafarers who turned out again to support the troops at JBLM with a considerable donation,” said SIU Assistant Vice President Joe Vincenzo. “It’s a way that we extend heartfelt thanks to the troops for their dedication and professionalism in service to our country.”
While no service members attended the luncheon (an almost unprecedented rarity, likely caused by pandemic-related precautions at the base), Vincenzo, a U.S. Army veteran, added that Seafarers “turned out by the dozens to break bread together in a true spirit of giving, along with Santa’s Castle volunteers and other special guests from the Inland Boatmen’s Union and the Transportation Institute.”
Santa’s Castle President Donna Handoe stated, “We couldn’t complete our mission if the Seafarers didn’t adopt us and treat us so nicely each and every year. Their dedication to our program really gets us going and keeps us afloat. We’re always blown away by the SIU’s generosity.” (Santa’s Castle is a private, non-profit organization.)
Handoe said that pandemic-related difficulties are ongoing when it comes to collecting and distributing donations, but Santa’s Castle 2021 nevertheless proved successful.
“We were severely challenged in our 2020 season and in our 2021 season,” she explained. “In 2020, everything was shut down. We weren’t able to have people enter our building, so we did curbside pickup that year. We made it through on our leftovers and a few new donations. We then started 2021 in a deficit and struggled throughout the year, but we made it. There’s always Christmas magic, again thanks to organizations like the Seafarers.”
Anita Vargo, vice president of purchasing at Santa’s Castle, also appreciated steps towards normalcy for the program in 2021 compared to 2020, even if at times they were more like lurches.
“In 2020, we were so slumped,” Vargo said. “Our shelves were empty. It had been a long time since we had to help more than 2,000 families, and that took our inventory from 100 percent to five. This past year wasn’t as bad, and with the Seafarers and others, they helped us so much to get our shelves restocked. By the grace of God, it all came together, like always.”
Vargo said it appeared as if donations rebounded in part because “everyone made up for the year they couldn’t give. It’s amazing how the community came together and it was great to see the SIU for the luncheon. We missed having it last year.”
She concluded, “I thank the SIU so much for always taking care of us. They’re like clockwork, Joe and the rest. They’re always amazing. We love it.”
The feeling seems mutual.
Recertified Bosun Rufino Giray has donated items for the past few years and is “happy to help out the kids while showing appreciation for their parents’ service,” he said. “It feels good to do something for kids at Christmas. Also, from working on a ship, I understand being apart from your family at times. This is a way to brighten their day.”
Recertified Bosun Sanjay Gupta started sailing with the SIU in 1991. He said participation in projects like Santa’s Castle “is just part of us. Whenever I get a chance, I donate. I’m happy to help. It helps military families so they can enjoy Christmas.”
Vincenzo emphasized that he doesn’t take the members’ participation for granted, even though they’ve supported Santa’s Castle and other local winter-holiday outreach dating to at least 2007. Along the way, Seafarers have generated more than $100,000 worth of gifts.
“Getting there is never easy but for the generous individual contributions from members and other supporters,” he said. “We the staff are truly grateful and humbled by the level of participation and generosity that Seafarers show year after year without fail, pandemic or no. I like to think that this is our way of pushing back with all due precaution and reasserting ourselves after almost two very challenging years.”