IN THE AFTERMATH OF ONE OF THE MOST DEVASTATING STORMS IN CITY HISTORY, THIS NON PROFIT BRINGS HOLIDAY CHEER TO FAMILIES IN THE FIVE BOROUGHS AND BEYOND
BY AMANDA McCOY
Every year, once the leaves begin to descend and the city is dancing with jingle bells and twinkling lights, Michael Sciaraffo dusts off his red and white suit and cracks open a storage unit, revealing a sea of plastic cars, rubber ducks, baby dolls, and dozens of other toys. It’s a ritual the Brooklyn native never thought would become a cornerstone of his life seven years ago, but when Hurricane Sandy barreled into his community in 2012, he felt compelled to do more than simply watch the news. While his colleagues know him as a senior analyst for the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, families throughout the city might recognize the “Santa” behind the Secret Sandy Claus Project now a lantern of hope and joy during the holidays.
“In the days after the storm, I felt helpless,” Sciaraffo recalled. “All my neighbors [in Gravesend] had their homes flooded and there were cars leaning up against trees from the force of the ocean water. After watching footage on TV, I realized that this devastation was not half a world away, but just outside my front door. The damage was so extensive, so seemingly incalculable… I said to myself that this requires all able-bodied individuals to roll up their sleeves and help.”
So, Sciaraffo took to social media to request food and clothing for community members in need. In a little over 24 hours, five tons of goods arrived at his doorstep, and the philanthropist quickly realized the true dimension of services he might provide. Since the storm hit at the onset of the holiday season, Sciaraffo also felt a sense of duty to bring joy to kids whose gifts washed away in the floodwaters.
“With their parents preoccupied with repairs, I realized that many children might not even get to sit on Santa’s lap that year,” he said. “So I decided to fill that gap myself.”
Since using social media to gather supplies had worked before, Sciaraffo put out another Facebook blast asking for toy donations.
In less than two weeks, things had gone viral…nationwide, in fact, and toys came flooding in from every corner of the country. That year, dressed in a red suit, Sciaraffo was able to make personal deliveries to 130 families in the Rockaways and Staten Island.
The following holiday season, his operation would grow to span from the far tip of Long Island down to Atlantic City. He also inspired 200 people to volunteer to likewise dress up as Santa to make deliveries, and together, this merry crew handed out more than 10,000 toys.
“There was hardly any room to sit in my one-bedroom apartment, where boxes were piled on tables and all over the floor,” said Sciaraffo. “I spent most of my days keeping track of toy requests and donations, which were pouring in by the hundreds from people who knew children affected by the storm.”
At the conclusion of the second season, the founder acknowledged the speed at which this operation was expanding. Sciaraffo explained that, while he was elated with the outpouring of support, he knew his own resources were finite. If the team was going to help yet more families the following year, it needed assistance. Sciaraffo knew just the organization to ask.
“We became official partners of the NYC Marines Toys for Tots organization,” he said, “which allowed us to help many more kids in many more areas. It really opened up the possibilities for what our organization can do.”
Although the philanthropist is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, he explained his most treasured recognition comes from the kids. “I get paid in hugs and smiles,” he said, adding that future goals are simple to increase the number of children who receive a house call from Santa each year.