Gary Moriello, 64, a retired school principal and member of the Northbrook Youth Commission has worn a Santa Claus costume every year since 1991. He says the suit gets hot, but it doesn't seem to affect his upbeat and quirky personality.
It's part of Operation Santa Claus, a program Moriello developed while he was principal of Gladstone Elementary in Chicago. For the first few years, Moriello would help collect toys, which he then delivered to kids at the school.
But when Gladstone students' reading performance started to wane, Operation Santa Claus switched the toys for books.
"I had lots of people opposed to that," Moriello said. "They thought the books would be scattered during recess."
He went through with it anyway and says reading scores at the school improved. Operation Santa Claus has remained a book program ever since.
Moriello is retired now, and Operation Santa Claus began donating to Goethe Elementary when Gladstone was shut down, but he still recruits a small army of supporters every year to provide books to kids ranging from second to eighth grade.
"He has so much passion for these children," Northbrook village president Sandy Frum wrote in an email. "This is just one of the many projects in which he participates. It’s been special to support Gary."
To join Operation Santa Claus, people contact Moriello by email, firstname.lastname@example.org, and he provides a student's literary wish list. Moriello requests volunteers to buy about $20 worth of books, which he personally delivers to Goethe classrooms the week before Christmas, dressed as Santa, of course.
"It's hard to say no to because you're doing something for inner city kids on Christmas," he said. "Some of these families don't have a lot of money, these might be one of the only gifts [the kids] receive for Christmas."
Moriello says being retired provides him a lot of time to run the program and help interested volunteers contribute however they can. Sometimes that means staying in touch with past volunteers and encouraging them contribute again.
"Once someone does it, I consider them in for life," he said. "We are the haves. I assure you, go down to the inner city, and those kids are the have nots."