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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- When the children send thank-you notes, the letters are addressed to Santa Claus.
The students at Cleveland's Orchard STEM School never see Janie DeVito and her crew, the United Airlines employees who drop off coats, hats, gloves and Christmas gifts in the early hours of a late-December morning. The parents know who to thank, but they rarely meet the flight attendants who wrap up towels, bedding and other basics for the school's neediest families.
For 16 years, DeVito's side project was a secret. So she was surprised to learn that an Orchard teacher had nominated her as a community hero.
"I had kind of mixed feelings about it, because this has just been that kind of program," said DeVito, who oversees a team of 450 flight attendants for United in Cleveland. "The only face that has ever been put on this program is that it was Continental employees, and now it's United employees."
In 1996, DeVito was new to Cleveland, after moving here from Houston with Continental Airlines. A flight attendant who volunteered at Orchard mentioned a pair of young boys there who needed warm clothes. From that first year, with two airline employees buying coats and boots for two children, the program grew into a grassroots giving effort. And it survived the 2010 merger between United and Continental.
Janie DeVito a senior manager of inflight operations for United Airlines, and her co-workers have adopted Cleveland's Orchard School.
Each fall, the principal and teachers at Orchard choose students, siblings and parents to receive gifts from United Airlines employees. Flight attendants, cargo workers and pilots chip in, sponsoring a specific child or plucking gifts off a list of family requests.
At its peak, the program supported 110 children. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, the number of families helped fell as Continential Airlines cut jobs and DeVito lost support staff.
This year, DeVito and her colleagues brightened Christmas for 36 families, with 48 children between them.
The students' wish list ranged from princess dolls to Legos, from books to board games. Their parents asked for staples, including sheets and toiletries. Two families requested beds for their children, who have been sleeping on the floor.
"It's just so sad," said Linda Solomon, a special-education teacher at Orchard, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school on Cleveland's West Side. "One family, they asked for a food gift card from Giant Eagle or Walmart. Another family asked for a Christmas tree with decorations. They have 12 children."
Solomon, who nominated DeVito and her team as heroes, said the glow extends beyond the holidays. Each May, DeVito arranges a visit to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Twenty children eat lunch on a plane, meet pilots and marvel over the baggage carousels. Most of them have never flown.
Grethel Almendarez has received gifts for several years. A single parent, Almandarez has a back injury and cannot work. She has two Orchard students: A 9-year-old son, Francisco, and a 13-year-old daughter name Luz.
The grocery gift cards are a boon to her household budget. When her children outgrow the clothes, she gives them to other Orchard families.
"There are a lot of parents who are in more need than I am, people who are living in shelters," said Almendarez, who leads the school's parents' committee. "We particularly try to get those kids in before we even try to get ourselves into the program."
This year, like every year, DeVito and her 10-year-old daughter shopped for an Orchard family with a girl the same age. DeVito says the annual shopping trip puts things in perspective. She tells her daughter that this one small pile of gifts is all a child in Cleveland will receive for Christmas.
Without DeVito and her crew, who dedicate their money and time to the program, there might not be any gifts. Or a tree to put them under
"People are always so mad about how expensive airline tickets are," Solomon said, "but they don't see how human these people are who work to get the planes there on time. It's like Santa Claus and the elves coming, and nobody sees them.
"I'm standing there with tears coming down, because it is just the most beautiful thing that anybody could witness."
Plain Dealer news researcher Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this story.