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Santa comes early to needy Nassau families

Santa (Joe Malizia), dances as he rings a

Santa (Joe Malizia), dances as he rings a bell and hands gifts to Avonna Brown, age 17, holding her son, Jeremiah, age 18 months, and her brother Tommy Waldington, age 7 and their mother Robin Bryant. Santa along with Michael Santo and some other helpers delivered gifts to this family and 8 others in Nassau County. This is the 14th year Michael collected and delivered gifts to families. (December 19, 2009) Credit: Karen Wiles Stabile

As a saxophonist pumped out a Christmas tune, Santa Claus bounded down Stewart Avenue in Hempstead Saturday, elves in tow, and up a stoop to Robin Bryant's modest two-story house.

Bryant, 45, her two children and grandson greeted Santa, played by Joe Malizia, 53, a science teacher from Rockville Centre, and his elves - friends and children of friends.

The elves delivered Christmas gifts, including socks, washcloths, toothbrushes, paper towels, pots and pans, a coffeemaker and toys.

"I am really, really thankful. We haven't had a Christmas like this in six years," said Avonna Brown, 17, who added that her 18-month-old son, Jeremiah, hasn't had a toy to play with in more than six months.

The volunteers' annual tradition of bringing gifts and delivering joy to needy families at Christmastime began in 1995 when Michael Santo, 53, a personal injury lawyer from Bellmore, played Santa at St. Mary's Hospital for Children in Bayside. It evolved over the years and the number of helpers grew to a dozen.

Since 2000, Santo, who grew up in Uniondale, has enlisted the help of colleagues at law firm Duffy & Duffy in Uniondale, and from those he works with at State Supreme Court in Nassau County.

This year, Santo said he raised about $5,000. In addition, St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre donated eight large bags of pre-wrapped gifts.

In Nassau, about 10,000 families lived below the poverty level between 2006-08, and about 10,800 families in Suffolk, according to census figures. The poverty line for a family of four is less than $22,050 annually, according to the federal government.

Santo and a dozen others met at Duffy & Duffy to sort the gifts, load them into a van and three vehicles, and deliver them to nine families in Hempstead, Roosevelt and Uniondale.

Two of Santo's three daughters, Deanna, 14, and Vanessa, 23, accompanied him. Alyssa, 18, who has helped out in previous years, was on her way back from Boston University.

"I wanted them to be thankful for what they have and it became an important lesson," said Santo, adding that he, too, gets a lot of satisfaction out of helping others.

Bryant, a single mother, said she thought Santa brought only toys for the kids. "When I saw the coffeemaker, that really hit me," she said. "This is so beautiful. Thank you."

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