Dietmar Heine was on one of his usual delivery routes for the Santa Claus Fund when he heard a small, high-pitched voice calling after him.
“Santa! Santa’s here!” a young child’s voice yelled. “I see Santa Claus!”
Not quite. Heine lives in Cabbagetown, not the North Pole, and he drives a pickup truck instead of a sled. But after 14 years of delivering boxes of gifts for the Toronto Star’s Santa Claus Fund, a charity to give Christmas presents to underprivileged children, Heine is prone to being confused with St. Nick.
For many children Heine visits over the course of his annual delivery routes, the Santa Fund boxes are the only gifts they will receive that holiday season. So, for them, Heine may as well be Santa Claus.
“It’s just such a powerful experience to do this,” he told the Star, having recently completed his annual route. “It’s a chance to give back. And it’s a chance to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
The fund was started in 1906 by Star founder Joseph E. Atkinson, to make the holiday season brighter for children of struggling families for more than a century.
Star readers have responded generously to support the effort, and this year, 45,000 gift boxes have been prepared to be given to as many children. The kids, under 12 years old, live in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Ajax and Pickering. The boxes are personalized with the name and age of each recipient and packed with age-specific goodies including a shirt, hat, mitts, socks, books, small toys, cookies and a toothbrush and toothpaste.
“It’s always a deeply rewarding experience to deliver these,” Heine says.
The delivery system is straightforward, but Heine says he often encounters obstacles with at least one or two deliveries.
“For many of the people we’re delivering to, personal information is inaccurate or difficult to access,” he says. “Because of the poverty level or personal circumstances, people’s phones are often turned off or their locations are easily subject to change. Every single year there seems to be one or two presents that end up being difficult to deliver.”
As usual, Heine says it happened again this year.
But the story had a happy ending.
Heine had one last present to deliver and had tried calling the intended recipients more than 10 times to no avail. He’d made four attempted deliveries and left three notes saying “We were here” over the span of two weeks.
Heine, who delivers the gifts with his partner, Mark, was ready to give up and return the presents when they decided to give it one last try.
This time, when the pair knocked on the door of the apartment, they heard a rustling noise in the apartment and noticed some movement at the window. Then the door opened slightly — one eye peeking through the trial in the door.
When Heine held up the Christmas box, the single mother of three young children opened the door and invited them in for tea. Her phone was turned off, and she kept quiet in the apartment for fear of being evicted or of encountering her former partner, she explained.
Heine’s visit, she said, was the “best gift” that she and her children had received in a while.
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Sign up for the Star’s Morning Headlines email newsletter for a briefing of the day’s big news.
Heine left the apartment with tears in his eyes.
“It was one of the best moments of the Christmas holidays,” he said.