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Ortiz aims to give back with Santa Claus program

Junior Ortiz knows how challenging it can be at the holidays for young men and women in and out of the foster care system. He lived it himself.

This holiday season, the Palmerton junior high school football coach is trying to get the local community involved in his efforts to give back.

Ortiz works at Nestle in Allentown, and they are involved in a program called “Operation Santa Claus” through the Lehigh County Children and Youth Services department, which provides toys each year for kids from infants to 17-year-olds. He took it upon himself to do his own outreach in the communities of Palmerton, where he coaches, and Northern Lehigh, where he graduated, to get gifts for as many children as he could.

“The support has been tremendous,” Ortiz said. “Within the first day, we had gifts for 27 kids on the list. I think we’re over 50 right now and it just keeps going.”

Participating is easy. A Google Docs form can be found at http://bit.ly/378VYho.

Individuals can sign up, choose from around 25 children listed to sponsor, and see the gift to buy for that child. As soon as that child is selected, their name and drops off the list and another one is added.

Giving back has always been important to Ortiz. He has first hand knowledge of what many of these kids experience at Christmastime.

“I was one of eight boys and I was in several different foster homes until I was 12 years old,” Ortiz said. “I moved back in with my biological parents and we didn’t have a lot of money. Some of the only gifts we got were through programs similar to this. It’s how I got my first bike, so I know what this means to the children.”

Leaning on his connections at Palmerton and Northern Lehigh, Ortiz sent a text message to coaches and teachers at both schools, asking if students would be interested in helping the cause.

“Within an hour, I had messages back and the willingness of the kids to participate was tremendous,” Ortiz said. “It speaks for itself. I know all of our coaches talk about who you are outside of the sports arena. They talk about getting into the community and being a positive influence. Our kids want to give back and they take every opportunity they can to do that.”

Seeing a coach and students come together strengthens an already close group, Palmerton Athletic Director Kyle Porembo said.

“Their willingness to help and come together in a time where things are tough make me proud to be a part of this team,” Porembo said. “This kind gesture Coach Ortiz organized only highlights how tight-knit of a community Palmerton is. It gives me great pleasure to know our students, athletes, coaches, teachers and community members are trying to make a few less fortunate kids’ Christmas something special this year.”

All gifts should be unwrapped and dropped off by Dec. 5. Information on pickup/drop-off is located on the Google Docs form.

“I just want to thank everyone who has gotten involved,” Ortiz said. “I think next year we might have to start working on this in September.”

Junior Ortiz and his wife, Jennifer, stand with presents donated so far as part of “Operation Santa Claus,” which Junior got involved in through his employer, Nestle. The program allows participants to sponsor and buy items for infants through 17-year-olds who may not otherwise receive many gifts for Christmas. This year, Ortiz worked to get more people involved in the Palmerton and Northern Lehigh school district communities. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO