On Christmas Day, Santa delivered gifts to kids in southwest Detroit.
Decked out in red, with a bag of presents in tow, he greeted families Saturday morning with a cheery “Merry Christmas.”
“We hope to put a smile on your faces and make you feel loved a little bit,” he told Mandy Gutierrez and her family as they huddled around their door.
Santa — played byRay Hillenbrand, 60, of Rochester Hills — was part of a caravan of about 100 volunteers who took toys — basketballs, board games and stuffed animals — to about 250 families across southwest Detroit.
It’s a 20-year tradition, said Jimmy Tuman, founder and executive director of Jimmy’s Kids, the nonprofit behind the Christmas Day giving.
“People who come here — Christians, Jews and Muslims — all come together, support each other, watch out for each other, take care of each other. It really is a little bit of world peace in southwest Detroit,” said Tuman, 80 of Royal Oak.
In the parking lot of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Detroit, bags of gifts were loaded into cars and on their way to families “who don’t know we’re coming,” Tuman said.
Howard Lazar has been volunteering with Jimmy’s Kids for 11 years. It’s a reminder of the Hebrew phrase “Tikun Olam,” or repairing the world, he said.
“I feel lucky to give back. I feel lucky to be able to do something that’s outside of myself,” said Lazar, 54, of Farmington Hills, who also brought his four kids to volunteer.
It’s a way for the Muslim community to give back, too, said Husain Haidri with the Michigan Muslim Community Council.
“One of the other things that we recognize is lacking in the public discourse today is some empathy and that’s the result of not being able to spend time with people that don’t look like you, or pray like you, so this is really an exercise in some interfaith work and also an exercise in empathy,” said Haidri, 21 of Canton.
The gift deliveries were part of Mitzvah Day, where volunteers of various faiths come together to help metro Detroit nonprofits on Christmas Day. In its 25th year, Mitzvah Day this time around is really Mitzvah weekend, running from Dec. 24-26 to expand the outreach and offer alternatives to Jewish volunteers who observe the Sabbath.
Historically, Mitzvah Day is the single largest day of volunteering by Detroit’s Jewish community, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee.
The word “mitzvah” is Hebrew for “commandment,” and refers to performing a good deed.
The idea is to lend a hand to nonprofits during the holiday. Volunteer efforts span about 30 organizations across metro Detroit, from before the weekend to Christmas Day itself, said Asher Lopatin, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee, on Thursday.
Trinity Lutheran Church needed volunteers to serve breakfast and prepare lunch on Saturday. Western Oakland Meals on Wheels called for people to help deliver holiday meals to seniors in the parts of the county.
On Sunday, Lopatin said he plans to head over to the social service agency Crossroads of Michigan with his children and father-in-law to give out food.
“Even though Christmas is a Christian holiday, Mitzvah Day is a way of involving everybody in a celebration of humanity,” said Lopatin, rabbi for the Kehillat Etz Chayim, a modern orthodox congregation in Huntington Woods and Oak Park.
Lopatin estimated anywhere from 300 to 600 volunteers to help out over the holiday weekend.
“In Detroit, so many of us live in different neighborhoods, different communities. We don’t get to mix as much as we want to. This really feels like almost a flagship for our desire to do things together,” Lopatin said.