For some needy children in this tiny village near Hagerstown, Santa Claus is an 82-year-old widow who delivers her goodies by truck rather than reindeer-drawn sleigh, and uses soldiers rather than elves to help her. Her name is Haven Hoffman, and she has been providing food and Christmas gifts to the area's poor for the past 39 years.
"It's got so people call up thinking I'm an organization," said the sprightly white-haired woman, who works 10-hour days year-round to keep up with her list of more than 500 children. "I'm no organization. With me, this is a hobby."
Each day after breakfast she clears her table and turns her kitchen into a workshop. During the year she repairs thousands of toys and stores them in a former chicken coop on her one-acre lot.
At Thanksgiving, she begins sorting and packing the toys appropriate for children of various ages and sexes. Each family she visits will also get a food basket containing supplies for Christmas dinner.
Most years, volunteer Army reservists and others deliver them throughout Washington County and into the nearby hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia on the Saturday before Christmas. Because Christmas this year falls on Saturday, the toys and food will be distributed tomorrow. On delivery day, Hoffman repays her volunteers by plying them with coffee, homemade biscuits and country ham.
To support her project, she makes and sells old-fashioned corncob dolls and collects household goods for an annual auction. Students from a local high school hold a canned-goods drive for her food baskets, but she buys the chickens and any other staples that aren't donated.
Best known in the community as "Mrs. Santa," Haven Hoffman stumbled into her work by chance. During the fall of 1943, she visited a poverty-stricken family with eight little girls but no food and little furniture. After helping provide the necessities, Hoffman asked the mother if the family was going to celebrate Christmas: "She said no, they never did," Hoffman recalled. "That broke my heart."
Soon she was spearheading a drive to collect used toys for the girls' Christmas presents, and arranging for the family to have wood to heat their house and a year's supply of milk. "I told myself we did good last year, maybe we can do better next year," Hoffman said.
From that time on, she and her late husband, William, began playing Santa Claus. Haven Hoffman had grown up in a house where "I never remember having a toy," and she and her husband were childless.
So they began repairing used toys for other people's children and made extra money by picking apples for three cents a bushel. They also raised 200 chickens each year on their property and canned vegetables given them by neighbors. At Christmas, they delivered the packages themselves.
"My reward would come when a little girl would climb on my lap and say, 'Mrs. Hoffman, I love you,' " she said. "And sometimes a mother would tell me, 'My child would never have a Christmas if it weren't for you.' That's what encouraged me."
The project quickly began to expand to other children. "We had eight the first year. By the second year we had 63," she said. Before long, names were pouring in from clergymen, neighbors and government social agencies--which officially weren't supposed to get involved, Hoffman said. The Hoffmans' list swelled into the hundreds.
Then, in 1963, William Hoffman lay terminally ill in the hospital, and Haven Hoffman was ready to give up. But at her husband's urging, she got out the gifts alone.
"It was his wish," she explained, "He kept saying, 'Next year I'll be home to help you.' "
It was not to be. He died on Jan. 3. "His last words to me were not to quit, so I didn't," his widow recalled.
Today, she cleans and gives away more than 500 dolls each year, along with several thousand other toys.
Hoffman prides herself on the fact that very few of the families appear on her list for more than a year or two at a time, even with Washington County's jobless rate currently above 14 percent.
"I like to help the people who're trying to help themselves, not those lazy bums who just sit around," she said. "The ones nobody else helps--they're struggling and trying to get their children through school."
The success of her approach is evident in several volunteers who help her, the now-grown children of families she helped years ago. One of them is Doris Saunders, whose family of seven brothers and sisters came under Hoffman's wing three decades go, after their mother died.
"When I mentioned it to her, she could name off all the children in our family," Saunders recalled. "She told me all about us. And she can tell you every name of the children in all the families she helped, especially in those first years. She doesn't forget."