by Susie P. Gonzalez
She didn’t have a plan. Or a business model. Or any idea how big her dream would get. But one December day in 1969, Louise Locker ’71 knew what she had to do. The Trinity junior went to a San Antonio post office and asked for children’s letters to Santa with their Christmas wish lists. She wanted to spread the magic of gift-giving, and nothing was going to get in her way.
She had no money and not much help. Most of the toys she gave away that first Christmas came from her home or from contributions she persuaded diners at Earl Abel’s, then located down the street from Trinity, to donate. A classmate offered his truck for the delivery. A salesman at a Christmas tree lot turned over what he described as his “most beautiful tree” for a child who innocently asked for one in a Santa letter because the family was too poor to buy it. One person at a time, starting with her mother, Locker has won over friends and strangers to her vision of making Christmas joy live in the hearts of children by showing up unexpectedly at their doors to surprise them with a toy.
These children believed, and they made Locker believe. She has faced various health challenges, including cancer and other personal setbacks, but her spirits remain undaunted and she remains involved. Most important, she truly believes one person can make a difference.
“When we have hope, our dreams can come true,” Locker says.
Nearly 50 years later, Locker estimates the Elf Louise Christmas Project has given toys to more than one million children who otherwise might not have gotten anything on Christmas morning. The project has evolved in its sophistication and business-like execution but still relies heavily upon volunteers who wrap donated presents, organize delivery routes, and dress in Santa Claus suits to deliver gifts. It also relies 100 percent upon financial donations.
In the beginning, Locker drew inspiration from The Tonight Show when host Johnny Carson read letters from children to Santa sent to the North Pole and “intercepted” by the postal service. Those letters triggered a desire to share her beloved dolls from her childhood with a child who believed Santa would be the only way she could get one. The next day, she went to the San Antonio post office, only to be told she could not have any Santa letters or risk charges of tampering with the mail. “Is there any way around the rules?” Locker recalls asking. She persisted, causing the postmaster to relent and let her read the letters and take notes while he held them.
She recalls one from a child whose family never had a tree, let alone presents. Another child asked for a dollar. A girl named Anna said she was certain that the only reason Santa had not ever visited her was because she’d never written. She closed with, “Please don’t get lost.” Locker showed these letters to the postmaster, who was so deeply moved, he whispered, “You can put those letters in your purse, but don’t tell anybody.”
She has other heart-warming stories. There is one about a boy who received a football and whose mother told the volunteering Santa, “We say prayers every night, and when we finish, my son says, ‘God, please send me a football.’” There is another from a 12-year-old who asked for the spirit of Christmas after his father lost his job and the home was dreary. Still another wrote that if Santa had anything left over, to please bring it to her family.
Locker says the Elf Louise Christmas Project “changes your perception of the world, but it also changes [the recipients’] perception of the world. It changes their perception of the potential for goodness.”
At Trinity, Locker started as a mathematics major and gravitated to sociology. She was involved with what is now TUVAC (Trinity University Volunteer Action Community) when there were only about a dozen members. When someone asked her to take on a leadership role and recruit members from the incoming first-year class, she froze, feeling intimidated to speak to such a large group. In the end, she sat on the edge of a stage and spoke earnestly about how students could help in the community. Five hundred students signed up to volunteer. “That was a powerful, affirming experience for me,” Locker says. “It speaks to the impact you can have when you work from your heart.”
She went on to a career as a psychotherapist, nonprofit collaborator, and life coach, and in the spirit of new beginnings, Locker is in the “infancy” stage of a collaboration with musician Bett Butler ’81 to create music meditations. They are writing poetry and words of encouragement to be set to music for anyone affected by a disaster and their caregivers, distributed at no charge through a download or via podcast. “The idea is to take a few minutes to listen, to relax and breathe deeply and be affirmed, nourished, and encouraged by the words you hear,” Locker says. “Our meditation about catastrophes is about hope.”
“Hope” seems to be Locker’s middle name. With the passage of time, she has met many people who received presents as children and returned to the project as volunteers. “They say it’s so life-altering,” she says. “The experience for people is personal when you are delivering presents. It’s your labor of love that allows you to connect with other people without embarrassment, to give and bring joy.”
One year she was featured in Good Housekeeping magazine and received thousands of letters from readers. “The overriding response is people said, ‘Wow, I’ve always wanted to do something. Now I will do something.’ I have a hopeful message: There’s so much every single one of us is capable of doing in our own unique way. Just believe.”