A charitable Santa seeks helpers on the school board

To offer Christmas gifts to needy kids, man wants old school for storage site

Anne Arundel

October 08, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Arnold businessman John T. Brewer has a vision for the old Pasadena Elementary School, a leaky and asbestos-filled building that hasn't housed children in 50 years.

Brewer, the founder of a Christmas charity, sees the school repaired and turned into storage for thousands of toys, books and winter coats destined for needy Anne Arundel County families. He plans to go before the school board today to seek permission to turn his vision into a reality by the end of the month.

Looking the part of a Santa Claus with his bushy white beard and big belly, he intends to tell the board he can't wait much longer to find a new home for the nonprofit Sharing Foundation.

"We have to be in place before Oct. 20 or we can't possibly pull Christmas off," said Brewer, who was forced to move the charity out of a rent-free storage site in January and wants to lease the old school.

The foundation, which started a decade ago helping a handful of families, has grown larger during the years as school staff referred more families to Brewer. Last year, it distributed holiday gifts to more than 2,000 children in the county.

Lori Cook of Parole, a foundation volunteer and recipient, said her family can barely afford to pay for basic needs. When the holidays roll around, she said, "We buy a little bit for the kids, but not a lot."

The foundation gave her four children the Barbie ATM, toy cash register and set of sports balls they had asked for. "These are things that it would be very hard for us to get and pay our bills, too," she said.

Brewer, who runs a marketing firm for three-quarters of the year, said the foundation's success has made it necessary for him to have a place where he can process the items that regularly pour in from donor businesses.

After he lost the rent-free facility in January, Brewer moved the items he had collected for this Christmas to various small storage spaces, including his house. But the foundation's work was stalled because there was nowhere for his staff to open boxes and sort items. Even worse, he had to refuse donations.

"I've turned down a truckload of 450 computers and monitors, a truckload of toys, a truckload of school supplies," Brewer said. "Keep saying `no' too many times, and your network's dead."

One thing working in Brewer's favor is the tremendous community backing he has amassed. His supporters include the county police, fire and sheriff's departments, which collect donations on his behalf and provide siren-blaring escorts when he stops by homes dressed as Santa to drop off presents.

School board members seemed receptive to Brewer's proposal when he showed up at a meeting last month. Several praised the foundation's work, and one of them, Ned Carey, was moved to take up its cause.

"It's an opportunity for us to help the kids," said Carey, who pushed to get Brewer's request on today's meeting agenda.

Carey, who grew up in Brooklyn Park, said he could identify with the stories that school staff told him of poor families the foundation has helped. "There were times when I was a kid growing up and Christmases were tough," he said.

If he gets the go-ahead, Brewer will need money and contractors who will donate their services to get the school on Pasadena Road in decent shape before his staff can begin putting together holiday packages. "We desperately need trade people," he said. "We have some, but nowhere near enough to pull this off."

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