Jaclyn Alvarez said her four children look forward to Operation Santa – a giant holiday carnival for military kids and their families – more than Christmas Day.

“The first year we attended, I never saw the kids light up like that,” said Alvarez, whose husband, Jorge, serves with the U.S. Air Force Reserve at the 911th Air Wing in Pittsburgh. “They always ask, ‘How many days until the carnival?’ To see the expressions on all the kids’ faces and their families, and to feel the excitement. My Christmas Day doesn’t even compare to that.”

But Operation Santa – which grew from serving 200 military family members six years ago to hosting 1,800 family members in 2018, may be forced to scale back or shut down.

The event, which is supported by the 501c3 Heroes Supporting Heroes, lost its space in Robinson Town Center, and faces funding challenges as corporate and community donations have slowed.

“My kids would be devastated if this falls through,” said Alvarez. “I’d be willing to do whatever we can to help keep it open.”

Operation Santa founder and Heroes Supporting Heroes CEO Kristi Hilbert said if the nonprofit doesn’t locate a space by mid-November, and come up with an additional $25,000 in funding to cover the approximately $50,000 in expenses, the event cannot be held.

If the funding and space doesn’t come through, Operation Santa will ensure help is still provided for all of the military and veteran families that have come to rely on the event for holiday gifts for their children.

Operation Santa aims to let families whose loved ones serve in the armed forces know they have support, and eases the financial burden on military families.

“This event is our way of thanking the spouses and children of the men and women in active military service who serve our country,” said Hilbert, of Cecil Township. “This is a thank you to the families, because they’re making a sacrifice. When their wife or husband is on deployment, it’s the spouse who’s home alone with the kids sometimes for up to 9 months at a time.”

Operation Santa’s volunteers include kids from several local school districts who are members of Bridges Kids Club, part of Hilbert and her husband Brad’s company, 3 Rivers Wealth Management Group in Southpointe.

The civilian children – or “elves” – are paired with a military child, and they purchase gifts for the child using money they’ve saved. The elves wrap the gifts, and watch the child open the gifts at the carnival.

Ashlea Daniels, 19, a Canon-McMillan graduate and a student at Florida Institute of Technology, has volunteered with Operation Santa since it began.

“It’s been one of the most exciting events of the year for me since I started. It’s a great opportunity to give back to those who give so much for us,” said Daniels. “It’s shaped me a lot. I’ve taken on more leadership roles because of it. It means a lot to see the kids opening gifts. To see how happy it makes them is inspirational. You get to see some of these kids grow up.”

Last year, more than 300 volunteers participated at the event.

Alvarez called Operation Santa “the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”

“It looks like a huge carnival with a million games, crafts, dress-up characters, artists doing caricatures,” said Alvarez, who has three daughters and a son ranging in age from 8 to 12. “It’s like Dave and Buster’s times 30. The volunteers are amazing. It’s so special that whoever purchases your children’s gift meets with you while they open their gifts. Also, it takes a burden off you financially. I wouldn’t be able to provide all of the toys they get most years.”

Amy Grala, whose husband, Matthew, serves with the Air National Guard at the 171st Air Refueling Wing, said she was “completely blown away” the first year her children – two daughters, 11 and 7, and a 10-year-old son – attended Operation Santa.

“I think I was in tears the whole time. It was amazing, the pure generosity of these people, the adults and kids who work so hard to do this to show appreciation for military families,” said Grala, noting how difficult it was for her family when Matthew was deployed. “No one ever recognizes the sacrifices of the kids. Nobody ever stops to think about the kids and how hard it is. Half a year in a kid’s life, a lot happens.”

Grala doesn’t want to see Operation Santa close its doors.

“We’ve been devastated to hear this might not occur this year,” she said. “We’ve pledged to do something every year to pay it forward and spread the kindness to somebody else. Even if my kids don’t get to participate, I don’t want to see it end for other kids. It’s heartbreaking, it would be a shame if it didn’t happen.”

A GoFundMe page, Save Operation Santa – Military Family Support, has been established. Contributions are tax-deductible. For additional information about Operation Santa, contact Hilbert at kristihilbert@trwmg.com or 412-235-4050.

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