VANCOUVER – Every December Evelyn Florendo plays Santa Claus to detained youth at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre.
Florendo, a four-foot, 11-inch octogenarian dynamo, has a compassionate heart for boys and girls who have run afoul of the law.
For 28 years she has organized volunteers and called on businesses to donate time and resources so incarcerated youth can enjoy a festive Christmas dinner and receive a present.
Nearly 70 boys and girls sat patiently at tables in the custody services gymnasium Dec. 13, waiting to get in line for turkey, pizza, drinks and desserts.
In the corner stood gift bags crammed with magazines, toiletries, games and books which Florendo passed out before the conclusion of the program of music and entertainment.
"Many of these children," she said in an interview, "are victims of broken homes, alcoholic parents, and abuse. They are emotionally fragile, disturbed, and confused. Some have even been forsaken by their own parents."
Florendo loves to see the reaction of the young people when they receive their gift. "The reward is watching their eyes light up when they realize that someone cares," she said.
In 1984 Florendo was a widow raising four teenagers when she read about young offenders committing suicide in jail. "The story went to my heart. I was praying so hard to make sure my children would be all right without their dad," she said.
She asked how she could help and met with centre director Gordon Hogg who saw that she was sincere.
Florendo used her three-week vacation to plan a Christmas party. She brought in volunteers to prepare and serve the meal and organized a program with guest speakers and entertainment.
That first party, Florendo said, turned out to be a great success, with centre staff enthusiastically joining in.
She promised the youth she would return the next day with presents. She was exhausted when she got home but she stayed up all night sorting toiletries, playing cards, sports magazines, comics and candies for the gift bags.
Her son Ernest helped her distribute the gifts while security guards escorted them to the cells. "As Ernest handed each one a gift, I gave them a hug and whispered in their ear, 'I love you.'"
One youngster, said Florendo, told her that it was the first time he remembered getting a Christmas present. He was 12.
After the Christmas party was over, Florendo was obviously tired, but her eyes shone with satisfaction.
"Thanks to God for giving me the strength to provide a Christmas for these children," she said.