Anonymous Santa spreads Christmas magic to families in need

“... I’m just excited for me to see how happy they’re going to be on Christmas Day to open up all their gifts and be shouting and screaming, ‘Look what I got!’” Brainerd mom Julia Lewis said of her kids. Meta 5 program and anonymous Santa help those families in need of a helping hand at Christmas.

Brainerd mom Julia Lewis stands with some of gifts donated to Meta 5 Family Resiliency Program this Christmas that she got to choose from as presents for her four children and niece. Submitted Photo

Julia Lewis got to shop for her kids’ Christmas presents this year, and for that she’s grateful.

The single mother from Brainerd hasn’t always been able to do that in years past. With four children between the ages of 4 and 9, while also taking care of her 17-year-old niece, Lewis has struggled to give her family the Christmases she wanted.

One year in particular stands out, when she missed the deadline to apply for Toys for Tots and her last money went to pay the rent, meaning she had nothing left for presents.

“I got my tree up, and the only thing I had up under my tree was a can of that Christmas popcorn,” Lewis said during a phone interview Wednesday, Dec. 23.

“I went in my garage and I started crying,” she said. “... I felt down, and I’m just like, ‘Man, what am I supposed to do?’ And I started beating myself up about it as I cried in the garage.”


Looking around the garage and spying some of her kids’ books, she decided to clean some of them up and wrap them, just so her kids had something to unwrap on Christmas.

But her neighbor had another idea.

An anonymous donor buys children's gifts each year to donate to the Meta 5 Minnesota Family Resiliency Program for parents to "shop" for their kids. Submitted Photo

Just as Lewis was about to get the books ready, she heard the doorbell. To her surprise, it was her neighbor, coming to invite her over.

“I go over to her house, and she bought my kids gifts,” Lewis said. “I started crying.”

There was a gift for Mom as well.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “... That year, I was going to tell them how important spending time with family is and explain that — which I should be doing anyways, and I do now — just explain to them it’s not all about the gifts. It’s about being happy and spending time with your family to get them not to think about gifts so much and be sad that they didn’t have any. That year my neighbor and her son came through for my kids.”


And this year, Meta 5 did the same.

A pre-employment program, Meta 5 Minnesota Family Resiliency Program offers help to those with financial hardships in Beltrami, Cass, Crow Wing, Mille Laces, Morrison, Todd, Wadena and Douglas counties.

“We help families to stabilize that have had a major life transition, and they've lost their primary source of income due to death, divorce, disability or abandonment,” Meta 5 Program Director Kimberly Pilgrim said. “They may need to move into self-sufficiency, and that’s different for each person.”

Thanks to a generous member of the Staples community, one support offered to Meta 5 clients in the lakes area is an annual Christmas shopping excursion of sorts.

An anonymous donor buys children's gifts each year to donate to the Meta 5 Minnesota Family Resiliency Program for parents to "shop" for their kids. Submitted Photo

For the past few years, the woman — who wishes to remain anonymous — bought multitudes of toys and other presents for children and donated them to Meta 5. Pilgrim and her team then set up all the gifts and allow parents in the program to go “shopping” for their kids and pick out items to place under the Christmas tree. Wrapping paper and other supplies are provided as well to give parents the full experience of holiday shopping and gift wrapping that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have.

Lewis was a participant this year.


“I was so happy,” she said, noting she’s excited to see the smiles on her kids’ faces when they unwrap them.

She was patiently waiting for the children to go to bed Wednesday night so she could wrap the gifts.

“... I’m just excited for me to see how happy they’re going to be on Christmas Day to open up all their gifts and be shouting and screaming, ‘Look what I got!’” Lewis said.

And that’s exactly why the anonymous donor does what she does. As a former participant of Meta 5 herself, she felt the need to give back once she was on her feet again.

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“When you are a mom who is struggling and you have a program that comes alongside you and gives you faith and gives you confidence and tells you that it’s OK because things will get better, I think that is what kind of does it for me,” she said during a phone interview Tuesday, Dec. 22.

Growing up, she said she was taught to give 10% back to God.

“So that’s part of my giving back,” she said.

And it’s definitely appreciated.


“They came through for me for Christmas,” Lewis said of Meta 5 and the anonymous Santa. “... To everybody that does this program and helps with this program or has anything to do with this program, keep up the amazing job because you’re putting smiles on people’s children like mine and other children, making their holidays even better when the moms are stressing out and crying in the garage.”

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Instead of tears and stress this year, Lewis will watch her excited children tear open their presents Christmas morning. Then she has a day full of Christmas movies, popcorn and hot chocolate planned.

While she’s smiling this Christmas, Lewis has a message for others who are still struggling.

“I would just say, don’t give up, and check all your resources,” she said. “Always be resourceful. Reach out to people to see what they might know. Just keep going, don’t give up. Something will come through — somebody, an organization — somebody’s going to come through.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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