Michael Sciaraffo doesn’t like to be called a hero. He reserves the term for those who save lives. He dresses up like Santa Claus and delivers toys to the children who lost theirs in Superstorm Sandy.
Scroll through the gallery to see how many people Sciaraffo’s “Secret Sandy Claus Project” has helped and read below to see what he plans to do this holiday season.
HLN: What made you want to help the victims of Superstorm Sandy? You were a victim yourself.
Sciaraffo: I had only lost my car, which was actually replaced by my insurance company, so in the end, I didn’t suffer too much, but all around, wherever I looked, neighbors and friends were in trouble. They had no home, no place to shower, eat, sleep or enjoy being with their family. You just wanted to roll up your sleeves and get to work because you knew how long the journey was going to be. To this day, we’re not close to being recovered. They’ve been really reliant on the grassroots organizations to fill that void.
HLN: How did you come up with the idea for the Secret Sandy Claus Project?
Sciaraffo: I realized quickly that if I was going to be of any help to anyone, I would need to communicate with people not just on my block. That’s when I got on Facebook and told people I was doing disaster relief and asked people for help. I got 5 tons of goods in one day. If I could organize that in one day, let’s see what else I could do.
HLN: Why did you decide to do a toy drive?
Sciaraffo: The holidays were coming up and I realized if the homes were destroyed, so were the toys. The idea was to do a toy drive, but when I realized that a lot of people were interested -- within four days of posting to Facebook, I had 750 toys in my house -- it got out of hand every quickly. Within 11 days, the project took on a life of its own. We were raising money, which we used throughout the year to rent the sleigh. We would fill it up with all the donations of food, clothing, water, building supplies, etc.
HLN: Did you keep up your efforts throughout the summer?
Sciaraffo: Come summer time, I had spent all the money we raised and I wanted to figure out a way to do something more without needing a budget. I took on an air conditioner program: People donated ones that worked; I’d repair them and donate them to those who lost them during the storm, so they didn’t have to struggle though the summer. We got 40 donations and a dozen installations as well. Then we ran into August, and I still had a hundred or so toys left from last year, so we did a “Christmas in August” event.
HLN: So you are delivering the toys again this year?
Sciaraffo: From Long Island to Atlantic City, in each of those affected areas, I have children signed up for toys. We’ve recruited more than 120 volunteers so far, some of which will become Santas of their own or elves to help coordinate families, schedules, toys, etc. We’re hoping with enough support, we’ll have toy drives locked in for schools, youth groups, political and business offices.
HLN: How do you find the people who need help?
Sciaraffo: I’ve made two Google web forms: [One for families,] and one for volunteers -- a toy maker, a sleigh rider -- these are the type of job functions we need. We post the two links on Facebook, and they get shared in all the affected communities. I look every day, and the numbers keep adding up. We have 1,500 kids signed up and we’re not even out of October yet. We have the group Facebook page, and it lets you network in different areas. Without it, I wouldn’t have enough information to execute this -- I’d still be sitting outside my house with Post It notes. It’s crucial to making this a successful operation.
HLN: What has been the most rewarding aspect of this project for you?
Sciaraffo: I get paid in hugs and smiles. That’s my reward, but also the parents. I remember last year, I was in a New York Post article where they referred to me as a hero. I took some offense to that because I thought the heroes were the people who went into waist-deep waters to save people. When I spoke out about it, I had family after family telling me, “You don’t understand -- it’s not just a toy in a bag you brought to my house. What you brought was my child smiling after not smiling for so long.”