Self-appointed Santa brings joy to world

Generous: West Baltimore's Al Payne spends the year gathering gifts for the needy

then, as Christmas nears, he gets even busier.

December 26, 2003|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

With Christmas Day fast approaching, Santa Claus pulls into a Royal Farms minimart on Pulaski Highway to get some coffee. He needs the caffeine: He has been working since early evening, and will continue through the night, delivering gifts to needy families all over Baltimore. He and his two assistants have just come from Govans, where they've dropped off a load of toys, clothes and food to a single mother who can't afford presents for her five kids.

While he does have a big, round belly and the red-and-white hat, this Santa diverges from the traditional model. He wears a black leather jacket over a sweat shirt emblazoned with "I Am The Big Dog," and carries his goodies in a black Ford Expedition.

His real name is Al Payne, and he has been helping the poor and unlucky for the past 31 Christmases. This year he gave presents and packages to more than 500 Baltimore-area families - turkeys, food baskets, clothes, appliances, furniture and, of course, toys.

He does all this with little help, on a tiny budget. His organization, Something For Everyone, has no paid employees. He gets a few donations from local companies, but most of the money and materials come from family, friends and ordinary folks who know what he does and want to help.

Payne, 55, is not wealthy. A Vietnam veteran, he has spent more than three decades working for the U.S. Postal Service; he is now the postmaster in Dayton, in western Howard County. He lives in a typical West Baltimore rowhouse, where he raised his five kids.

But he knows that many have it worse.

"There are people out there who are not making it," says Payne. "I'm not too much above that, but I have a lot to be thankful for."

Fortified by the caffeine, Payne and his helpers, Sylvia Zeigler and Ernest Flowers, head to one of his seven "hubs" - apartments around the area where he stores the hundreds of bags and boxes of goodies that he collects over the course of the year. It is just after midnight.

This hub is the living room of a friend's Middle River townhouse. The space is packed with garbage bags of clothes and boxes of nonperishable food.

He and his assistants go through the jumble, picking out presents that will fit the ages and genders of the next few recipients. They load the Expedition, squeeze in and set off for Northwest Baltimore. By now it is almost 1 in the morning.

Driving through Baltimore's dark streets, they have the city almost to themselves. The only people still out are the few unlucky souls waiting for buses and clusters of watchful young men standing on corners.

A large man with a deep, soothing voice, Payne is feeling a little tired. He still has more than 10 deliveries left.

"We're going to be running all night," he says. "If I get home before 9 a.m. it'll be a miracle."

He has not slept since taking a brief nap Tuesday morning - more than 40 hours ago. In the weeks before Christmas, he rarely sleeps, and when he does it's usually for just a few hours. He says he learned to stay awake in Vietnam, where he saw heavy combat.

Of the three, Zeigler seems the most energized. This is her first time on the giving end of the equation. She first met Payne two Christmases ago, when he helped her out of a jam. She had walked out of an abusive relationship, taking her seven kids but not much else. She and her children were sleeping on blankets laid on the floor.

"I had nothing. Nothing. We had no furniture, no food," says Zeigler, an animated woman who seems at least 10 years younger than her age, which is 37.

A friend told her about Payne, so a week before Christmas, she wrote him a letter, never expecting to hear back. A few days later, he knocked on her door. When she realized who he was, she began bawling.

Impressed with her courage in deciding to leave the relationship, Payne decided to "adopt" her. He helped her get furniture, clothes, even an apartment.

"Without him," she says, "I think I'd be in a homeless shelter."

Over the past few weeks, she and Flowers, her fiance, have been helping Payne. "Doing this makes me feel really good," she says. "I was really upset when I couldn't get my kids anything. I know what it feels like."

Payne's project started in 1972, when he began helping single mothers in his apartment house assemble Christmas toys they'd bought for their kids. "Not too many women know how to put a bicycle together," he jokes.

He realized that many families didn't have enough money to buy presents, and decided to pitch in. At first, he helped just a few people. But word of his generosity spread.

"When you help somebody in need, they talk about it," he says. "People started giving me stuff. It just grew and grew and grew."

Last year, he gave packages and presents to 477 families. Many contact him directly, by phone or mail. He finds others by culling through the stack of "Dear Santa" letters collected by the Baltimore post office. Many of these missives are written by needy people who don't know where else to turn.

Together, these requests have made Payne a busy man.

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