For 21 years, Macomb man delivers gifts to those in need
December 18, 2012
MACOMB TOWNSHIP — For most children, Santa Claus is a jolly, bearded man wearing a bright red suit. He travels between rooftops Christmas morning in a sleigh led by flying reindeer.
For the children of the Charles Street projects on Detroit’s east side, Santa stands more than 6 feet tall with a broad chest and a goatee. Instead of the sleigh, he’ll be driving a pick-up truck and a U-Haul filled with toys.
In fact, Michael Chase’s only resemblance to the traditional Santa Claus is the cone-shaped red-with-white-trim hat he wears every year.
“Only the hat,” Michael said recently in his Macomb Township home, when asked if he wears a Santa suit.
Yet, Michael has earned the name Santa after 21 Christmases of delivering donated gifts to families living in the city’s public housing projects. “I’ve never missed a year,” he said. The tradition has grown. His family of four now takes the trip with him, and monetary donations for the annual trip southward come from as far as California.
The ritual began organically, when a neighbor of the Chase family brought a garbage bag full of Beanie Babies.
“A neighbor just came over and said, ‘Do you know of any kids that would want this?’” said Marie, Michael’s wife of 27 years.
Instead of just throwing them out, Michael drove down Mound Road, from their former house in Warren, into the city’s east side — not far from where Michael grew up and where Marie’s grandmother lived in Hamtramck. He parked at a church across the street from the housing units and asked the priest if he would be able to pass out the stuffed animals.
“I don’t mind if you do it,” Michael recalled the priest telling him. “Just do it after the service.”
After he passed out the stuffed animals, the children asked if he planned to come again next year. When he said yes, he made a verbal commitment that has lasted more than two decades. “Now I’m obligated, and we’ll never stop,” Michael said.
Michael was raised in Detroit only three miles from the site of the projects. He said the neighborhood back then was a stark contrast to what it is now, and a definite contrast to where the family resides today. Their Macomb Township home abuts a field, where the family’s golden retriever Cooper chases flocks of geese that have settled there. Their basement is the equivalent of Santa’s workshop. In one corner is a row of donated bicycles. A pool table is covered in stuffed animals. Inflatables and both opened and unopened toys are piled on a table.
In the days leading to Christmas, the family opens each donated gift and makes sure every one works. “I will not have anything that does not work go out there,” he said. “We get home, go in the basement and start working.”
Every year, the number of donations increased but the labor inside the Chase home has been capped at four, with the addition of their children Christopher, 22, and Lauren, 21, over the years.
“I’m proud of my family because it’s not easy,” Michael said. “When everyone else is having parties, we’re loading the truck.”
“It’s worth it,” Lauren assured him.
The load of donated gifts increased from a pick-up truck’s worth to a moving van. Using Facebook, people donate money from across the country now. “Dallas, California, Minnesota — you know, they just started sending money,” he said, listing the names of places from which he’s received checks.
The family celebrates Christmas early in the morning and then drives to Detroit. When they see the line of people waiting for them and the joy the simple gifts provide, the family is rejuvenated and ready for the next year.
“When you actually see their faces, it’s all worth it,” Marie said.
“Your heart’s this big,” Michael said, making a large circle with his hands above his chest. “Once you see it, you can’t stop. You can never stop. I’ll be there in a Hoveround with tubes and everything.” The family laughed at the mental image.
The joy that comes with the annual visit is one part. The second motivation, though, is seeing the cyclical nature of poverty: one person raised in the projects and in turn, raising their own child in the projects. Michael and Marie hold dear one teenager whom they have watched grow older ever year.
“I want you to come visit me,” Michael remembered telling the girl last year. “I want you to say that you are not in here. I don’t mean to be mean. I don’t want to not actually see you next year.
“I want to hear that you are gone, and I have a good story — that something worked out for you.”
Those interested in donating this year can contact Michael at (586) 214-3656
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