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December 21, 2012

“Sandy Claus” delivers toys to storm-stricken kids

— From his toy-cluttered Brooklyn apartment, the man in the red suit was making his list and checking it twice. But he made no distinction between naughty or nice: Every child on it would receive a gift from this Santa Claus.

For the children whose toys floated away during Superstorm Sandy, Michael Sciaraffo is playing the role of a real-life Saint Nick. Every afternoon and night, he stuffs his red sack to the brim with presents and heads out to storm-ravaged homes, personally delivering new toys to awestruck little kids whose play rooms were destroyed by floodwaters. And with less than a week before Christmas, his “Secret Sandy Claus Project” is keeping him very busy.

“Between the requests coming in for personal visits as well as the influx of donations, it’s been a full-time job,” said Sciaraffo, a 31-year-old political consultant. “And kudos to Santa, because I don’t know how he pulls it off every year.”

There’s hardly any room to sit in his tiny apartment, where boxes of toys are piled on tables and all over the floor. He spends most of the day keeping track of toy requests and donations that are pouring in by the hundred from people who know children affected by the storm. At first, Sciaraffo began jotting down the requests on Post-it notes, but as demand steadily grew he created a spreadsheet and taped it to the wall.

The list reads like an inventory for a toy store. A Playskool swing for 2-year-old Jacob. A Disney Fairies makeup set for 5-year-old Charlotte. Then there are countless robots and footballs and baby dolls arranged by age and gender, awaiting assignment to a specific child.

“The goal was to match up each child with a toy that they liked or asked Santa for for Christmas,” Sciaraffo explained. “We basically tried to pair them up with toys I had in stock.”

The charitable enterprise grew out of a Sandy donation outreach effort that Sciaraffo had been spearheading for weeks in the wake of the storm, drumming up donations of clothing and food through Facebook. As the holidays approached, he realized that lots of children would be without their toys this year.

And with their parents preoccupied with the drudgery of storm repairs, many children probably might not even get to sit on Santa’s lap. So he decided to fill that gap himself.

“When I was a kid, my toys were very important to me,” Sciaraffo said. “That’s their security blanket, so to speak. I couldn’t sit home and do nothing.”

Donations are coming by the truckload from all over the country, fueled by his Facebook page. And Sciaraffo has received elf-like help from fellow New Yorkers like Sean Turk, a father of three from Queens who has raised more than $2,000 from his community and has been filling toy requests at local stores.

“I started it with $500 of my own,” Turk said, “and then people just started contributing.”

On a recent rainy afternoon, Sciaraffo pulled on his white wig and beard and drove out to weather-beaten Belle Harbor, a town on the Rockaway peninsula. His first stop: the darkened oceanfront home of Elizabeth Sampol, who was waiting upstairs with her 11-month-old daughter, Ella.

“Ho, ho, ho,” he shouted. “Merry Christmas!”

Ella gazed up at him and smiled as Sciaraffo handed her a toy duck. Sandy struck just after her first birthday party and destroyed all of her new gifts when the basement flooded.

“As you can see from the outside of the house and the inside of the house, it’s been a disaster,” said Elizabeth Sampol, who has been living in a FEMA-funded hotel room for several weeks with her family while their home is repaired. “And we haven’t had time to take her to go see Santa Claus or to do anything that we would want to do for her first Christmas that actually matters.”

Sampol said she was amazed when she learned about Sciaraffo’s project.

“He contacted me and he told me how he’s been going around giving out gifts,” she said. “And I was so happy that someone would do this in his free time.”

A few blocks away, 4-year-old Sophie Creamer waited excitedly by the front door as she caught sight of Sciaraffo coming down the street. And when he handed her a brand-new Barbie doll, she clutched it to her chest and wouldn’t let go.

“It’s all gutted. We don’t have a basement,” said her mother, Lori Creamer. “So she lost all of her toys.”

If all goes according to plan, Sciaraffo is hoping to deliver presents to nearly 1,000 children in the coming days.

As he hoisted his sack of toys over his shoulder, heading off to another delivery, the rain stopped and a rainbow cut a path across the sky. He took it as a sign of good luck.

“You don’t see that every day,” he said, grinning as his beard slipped down his face a little. “Amazing.”

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