JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. - Operation Santa Claus will open its doors to referred families Dec. 3, 2012, at 5343 Airfield Road here and will remain open weekdays until Christmas Eve.<br /> <br /> Operation Santa Claus has been giving gifts to families in need since Staff Sgt. Samuel Divita, 6th Training Brigade, started the nonprofit organization in 1958. Divita used his own money to buy toys initially, but people began donating money and toys as the operation grew. Volunteers are still bringing holiday cheer to the joint base community 54 years later.<br /> <br /> “The staff welcomes and needs volunteers year round,” said Vince Bowker, Operation Santa Claus president.<br /> <br /> There are four staff members currently working full time at Operation Santa Claus. Staff and volunteers sort, clean and repair toys for children throughout the year to prepare for the holiday season. <br /> <br /> “I was a scoutmaster in the building next to the Operation Santa Claus building when I discovered the organization in 1999,” said Bowker. “I was inspired by the charitable acts and wanted to get involved in helping underprivileged families.”<br /> <br /> Bowker plays the role of the resident Santa in addition to holding the Operation Santa Claus president position. He even has a long beard to enhance the appearance.<br /> <br /> “Seeing children with smiles on their faces fills me with joy,” said Bowker. “The children’s love for Santa makes this job extremely rewarding.”<br /> <br /> First sergeants on base refer families to Operation Santa Claus.<br /> <br /> “The first sergeants know the people on base better than I do,” said Bowker. “The First Sergeants Association is a big partner with our organization.”<br /> <br /> Operation Santa Claus executive board members established criteria families must meet in order to shop at “Santa’s Workshop.” The first sergeants provide the bridge for candidates and then help facilitate the process.<br /> <br /> “The first sergeants are the points of contact for anyone interested in participating,” said Master Sgt. Mark Smith, 305th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron first sergeant. “I remember how much we helped a particular staff sergeant several years ago. His wife wasn’t working at the time and he had four children, so we helped his family get toys for the children. I can only imagine the relief he felt after being so overwhelmed by the stress that situation caused.”<br /> <br /> Operation Santa Claus staff also invite qualifying civilians from the community to shop at Santa’s Workshop. Community charity workers submit a written request to Operation Santa Claus executive board members on behalf of the community members in need.<br /> <br /> Bowker encourages families who are struggling or who need extra help during the holidays to reach out to their first sergeants in order to participate in Operation Santa.