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Northrop Grumman workers continue Santa tradition

Kevin Olsewski, Chritina Famtino, Laura Anderson, and Griselda

Kevin Olsewski, Chritina Famtino, Laura Anderson, and Griselda Robles along with other Grumman workers and retirees are packing up toys and clothes to distribute to children in Glen Cove. (December 11, 2009) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Anyone looking for Santa this week might try an incongruous place - the plain, two-story Building 35 at the Northrop Grumman plant in Bethpage.

For the past 12 months, several employees have sold bagels and organized bake sales to send presents to 70 children and adolescents at SCO Family of Services' St. Christopher's Home in Sea Cliff, which aids children in poverty as well as kids and adults with special needs and homeless families. The tradition started 40 years ago when the bustling Grumman factories were Long Island's largest employer.

This year, Santa's helpers have been scurrying to big-box retailers to fulfill requests for radio-controlled cars, Super Mario games and flashlights. One child asked for a map of New York City: It will be delivered - along with other goodies - on Wednesday evening.

The Santa visits began as an informal gesture of Grumman's Supply Operations Department in the glory year of 1969, when the company was celebrating its role in building the Apollo lunar module that landed astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

The tradition has survived the collapse of Long Island's aerospace industry, a corporate takeover and now the recession.

It also survived Santa's retirement. A jolly man named Dick Erdody dressed as Santa and drove from the plant to St. Christopher's Home for 35 years, even after he left Grumman.

About a dozen years ago, Christina Fantino, 59, a South Farmingdale mother of two who was working in Grumman's product support division, agreed to oversee the Santa operation. The company had been downsized, and she feared the toy drive would disappear.

"We didn't want the tradition to end," Fantino said. "It was just too important."

Several colleagues joined her, with one, for instance, making sure each child has a comforter and another checking on the sizes of bathrobes and slippers. Kevin Olsewski, 53, of East Farmingdale, helps pack Santa's bags. Shortly before quitting time this Wednesday, Olsewski will get on a loudspeaker - as he does every year - and ask for volunteers to load the vans and SUVs before Santa makes the trek to Glen Cove.

Once there, Santa will visit with the residents, who range from age 5 to 21.

"It's an emotional day because our kids get excited about the littlest things," said Sioban Rack, director of development of SCO Family of Services, formerly St. Christopher Ottile.

Along with hats and gloves and sets of sheets, each child gets properly sized clothing and toys that he or she requests. In the past, one child asked for a subscription to Time magazine, while a girl asked for a tea set and a boy said the only thing he wanted was a basketball. In an effort to give back to Santa, one grateful girl once tried to hand over her soccer trophy.

In just over two weeks, the process will start again. Fantino, Olsewski and their colleagues will be selling bagels and chips, donating money for the privilege of wearing jeans instead of business clothes for a week, and soliciting "angels" to buy toys for Santa's visit in 2010.

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