WAILUKU Paul Tonnessen is doing his best impression of Santa Claus this holiday season by helping to deliver presents to hundreds of Maui County children who have been "ripped from their homes."
Tonnessen, executive director of the Friends of the Children's Justice Center of Maui, is delivering presents almost daily to more than 25 social service agencies that help serve families and children who have experienced abuse or neglect.
"It's been nonstop," he said Saturday. "I started early yesterday morning, got done at night - and I'm back at it today."
Paul Tonnessen, executive director of Friends of the Children’s Justice Center of Maui, separates toys by age, gender and interest at a storage area in Wailuku. The center has delivered more than 1,600 gifts to Maui County children.
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
Paul Tonnessen, executive director of Friends of the Children’s Justice Center of Maui, carries bags of donated toys to a storage area in Wailuku.
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
The center has delivered more than 1,600 gifts, including dozens of bags of presents that were sent to Molokai and Lanai. The Wailuku center, which serves more than 800 children annually, uses a storage space to help organize and wrap the gifts.
Center board members Anne Leuteneker and her husband, Tom, offer the space every year.
"We started, believe it or not, in the beginning of October," Tonnessen said. "We have to just because it's such a massive undertaking."
Tonnessen and volunteers pick up presents from private parties and drop boxes at Whole Foods Market and Wailuku Coffee Co. and take them to the storage space, where they are sorted and gift wrapped. Agencies including Women Helping Women Maui, Child Welfare Services and Child & Family Services send a list of children with age, gender and interests to help organize the presents.
On Saturday afternoon, Tonnessen had just finished a round of gathering and organizing presents from his white Chevy HHR.
"That car, you wouldn't believe what that holds. All this right here I could fit in the back," he said spreading his arms wide over a pile of Barbie dolls, Legos and other toys.
Tonnessen said that some private parties have garnered more than 350 gifts and that the center has had to borrow pickup trucks to transport them all. He said that when he arrives to some of the agencies with the gifts, the children point and call him "Santa."
"These are children who have been literally ripped from their home," he said. "So when they see these gifts, they're just so appreciative."
Prior to becoming executive director of the center in August 2012, Tonnessen was a board member for 12 years. He is the only paid employee with the center and has had less than a dozen volunteers helping him this season.
Tonnessen said that the center receives "a lot of last-minute requests" from families who have nothing to give to their children for Christmas and that he will be delivering presents "all the way up until Christmas Eve."
"We help fill the gaps that can't be filled by other organizations," he said.
Jani Sheppard, chief executive officer of Maui Family Support Services, said that her nonprofit has received hundreds of gifts from the center this year.
"He must pull in here every day with his truck - and it's full," she said of Tonnessen. "We had a holiday party and dinner for over 350 people and he was able to provide the gifts for the goodie bags for everyone."
Although her group has 63 staff members in Maui County, Sheppard said the group would not have been able to provide the volume of gifts that the center has provided. She said her staff has been able to take gifts with them during their regular home visits with expectant mothers, young parents and other families.
"I happen to think Paul is an angel all year. That's just where his heart is," she said.
Officials at the Maui Food Bank said they had collected around 102,000 more pounds of food this holiday season than last year but added that the demand has also grown.
During what the food bank counts as the holiday season of October, November and December, the food bank has received more than 646,000 pounds of food, said Marlene Rice, the agency's development director. Last year during the same period, the agency collected 544,000 pounds.
It has also been a record-setting year for food distribution.
Rice said that usually 8,000 pounds of food go out per day. But in November, that number was surpassed as 11,000 pounds of food per day were being given out.
"That was a record high for the food bank for November," Rice said.
Although more food has been collected this year, Rice added that virtually all of that 600,000 pounds has already left the warehouse.
Rice and Executive Director Richard Yust said that donations still can and should be made to the food bank, noting that "hunger doesn't take a break during the holiday."
Yust said that the food bank needs donations to carry it into the new year.
The food bank will be open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. today and from 7 to 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Yust said that some agencies will still be picking up food from the food bank during those days.
The Friends of the Children's Justice Center of Maui is still accepting unwrapped toys at its Wailuku office, as well as the Wailuku Coffee Co. and Whole Foods in Kahului. The center will collect gifts until this evening.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.