Harold and Barbara Colter have a long Christmas shopping list. This year, they gave more than 2,300 gifts, and they hope to top 3,000 next year.
It's not that the Eagle Rock residents have an abnormally large family, but that the Colters have appointed them selves Santa and Mrs. Claus to thousands of patients in three state hospitals around California.
The Colters began their Christmas custom nine years ago when they heard a television weatherman request unwrapped gifts for patients at Porterville State Hospital. The Colters had worked in a Wisconsin hospital at one time and recalled that many of the patients were forgotten at the holidays.
"There were so many patients that never got a thing for Christmas. This is kind of what got us started," said Harold Colter, 64.
The couple started buying several gifts to give to Porterville hospital, eventually collecting 500, but they didn't like the idea of not wrapping them.
"It's just not Christmas if they're not wrapped," said Colter, a retired construction worker. They also decided not to leave their gifts in local drop-off points, as the weatherman had asked, but instead took them directly to Porterville, 167 miles from their Lockhaven Avenue home.
That visit started a tradition that has made them well-known in Eagle Rock and even earned them a letter of appreciation from First Lady Nancy Reagan.
They now spend much of the year looking for bargains on such items as lipstick, soap, cigarettes and neckties in quantities of 100 or more. They say they buy 90% of the gifts themselves, but friends donate gifts, as has Colter's carpenter union Local 563.
"Harold's the shopper. He's a bargain hunter," his wife said. Colter declined to estimate the amount of money he spends on the presents.
The Colters pile the gifts, wrapped in brightly colored paper and ribbons, in their garage in huge stacks on long tables, which makes the place look like Santa's workshop. They collect used wrapping paper and trimmings and iron out the creases.
Neighbors Lorraine and Hollis Main say they save all their paper and "even rob some of the trash barrels" to give wrappings to the Colters. This year, friends and neighbors pitched in for 10 afternoon wrapping sessions. The Colters loaded their van with presents this week, and, with Harold dressed as Santa, made deliveries to the hospitals.
This year, they gave about 1,300 gifts to Camarillo State Hospital, 450 to Lanterman State Hospital in Pomona and 560 to Porterville. Camarillo was added to the shopping list last year, Lanterman was added this year.
The Colters say they are partly motivated by the fact that they do not have children to share Christmas with. But, more important, they stress the special need of handicapped and mentally ill patients to be remembered at the holidays.
'Something of Their Own'
"They like to have something of their own," Harold Colter said.
Jerry Scheurn, coordinator of volunteer services at Camarillo, said the Colters' gifts are "definitely appreciated and needed."
He said that the hospital used to be able to buy Christmas gifts for the patients but that budget cuts eliminated them. So in June Scheurn began soliciting clubs, organizations and businesses for donations and has collected about 3,000 gifts, with the Colters' contribution being the largest. He said the hospital has about 1,300 "clients" ages 5 to 91, and he tries to give each at least two gifts.
"A lot of them have no family. The forgotten group of people are the mentally ill, but this lets them know that people do care," Scheurn said.
The Colters usually do not give the presents directly to patients. But on Tuesday, they were able to give a small radio and a candy cane to each of four Camarillo patients specially chosen by administrators to greet Santa. One of the patients, a young retarded woman, hugged him twice.
One problem is that the Colters insist on wrapping all the gifts, even though the hospitals want them unwrapped for fear that the patients might hurt themselves with some objects. But the Colters label each gift and take along a box of unwrapped gifts to show administrators what is inside the packages. However, officials at Camarillo said they will have to open the wrapping paper to double-check, for example, that a perfume bottle is not breakable.
The Colters know that, but, said Harold, "It's not Christmas if they're not wrapped. If I couldn't wrap them, I probably wouldn't even fool with them."
He says they are always interested in receiving more gifts and wrapping paper from others in the community but do not want money donations "because you have to declare it."
Meanwhile, they plan to keep the tradition alive. "This really keeps us going, " he said.