The Secret Santa Society of Ypsilanti is a philanthropic group of volunteers that collect donations and deliver wrapped gifts to Ypsilanti families on Christmas Eve.
Jessica Ashmore, founder of the Secret Santa Society of Ypsilanti, started the program in 2018. Ashmore was inspired to start Secret Santa because she is a caseworker for the juvenile court, which allows her to work directly with many families throughout Ypsilanti.
Ashmore said that through her work, she has seen first-hand how families struggle to afford living expenses and additional household needs, like Christmas presents.
"When you are making sure you are putting food on the table, it can be really difficult to figure out how to put gifts under the tree,” Ashmore said.
In 2018, Ashmore had an interaction with a young boy who said that Santa was not coming when asked what he wanted for Christmas.
“I was haunted by how a little one could reconcile such a thing and then had to watch as the world celebrated,” Ashmore said. "I also knew his circumstance and could see where it was not feasible for his household. That year my family went out and bought a number of gifts for the whole household, meals and cleaning supplies, and delivered them to porches late Christmas Eve so the little ones would be surprised in the morning.”
The Secret Santa Society of Ypsilanti is run by hundreds of volunteers and donors every year. Ashmore said the volunteers consist of gift-buying teams, wrappers, and deliverers, who she calls “wonderfully generous.”
"So maybe [Santa’s] not flying through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, but he is alive and well in this little town called Ypsilanti, where literally hundreds of people show up every year to show that they truly care,” Ashmore said.
Ashmore’s initiative has grown steadily since its start in 2018. They supported four families the first year, and it grew to 24 families in 2019 and 53 families in 2020. This year, Ashmore and her team of over 300 volunteers and donors plan to support 71 families.
“Eight days before Christmas, in 2019, I woke up and asked my husband to design me a logo,“ Ashmore said. "I then put an appeal out on social media to see if others would be interested in joining me. It felt like the whole world showed up, and in 8 days, we supported 24 families. In 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic and operating out of a storage unit, we supported 53 families with over 200 people combined. This year the Michigan Firehouse Museum in downtown Ypsilanti has very generously donated the use of their lower-level for this program for the month of December. This has allowed me to expand operations and the number of families served.”
Ashmore lives in Ypsilanti and wants to give back to the community, as well as support the local economy.
“This city has my whole heart,“ Ashmore said. "I work very closely with all of the area schools, and our referrals come from school staff and/or community agencies working with our families in a professional capacity."
Ashmore also hopes that The Secret Santa Society will expand into other communities.
“I hope that a program like this catches on in many communities and am more than happy to share our process,“ Ashmore said. “Had all of these people not shown up in countless ways each year, I would have just been another person with an idea. It took the community to make this happen, and they surely do.”
Secret Santa is currently accepting donations, including bedding, winter wear, kitchen supplies, clothing, and fun items, like toys.
“I hope that it's truly magical for them to have all of these carefully and lovingly selected items show up on their porch late Christmas Eve, where the whole household gets to share in that childhood sentiment that was 'Santa,‘“ Ashmore said.
Gift donations can be taken to Michigan Firehouse Museum at 110 W. Cross Street on Saturdays and Sundays from Dec. 14 through Dec. 18, noon to 3 P.M.
“Anyone who is interested in supporting this effort can: join a gift-buying team, donate gifts that we can select which family to give to, donate financially, shop from our local business gift registry, purchase personal care items from our Amazon wish list, volunteer their time and/or share about us on social media and help spread the word,“ Ashmore said.