CARLINVILLE – For more than a decade, Mark Staerk and his wife, Karen, have worked to bring Christmas cheer to people in Carlinville. Before they moved there, it was occurring for nearly two.

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Called Santa Spirits, Staerk and his wife work with the community to specifically identify people in need and bring them assistance. Staerk said he looks for people in Carlinville who have experienced something of a crisis - people who are down on their luck or downright facing tragedy. Once a person or family is located, Staerk works with his “Santa Spirits” to gather enough resources to take care of the family's needs and then provide them with Christmas provisions of joy after that.

“It's been an ongoing deal for a while,” Staerk said. “It really has blossomed over the last few years. When I was a kid, my parents got divorced and Christmas at mom's house wasn't a whole lot. It always kind of hurt to have to go through that. Someday I wanted to help out and do something for other folks.”

Over the years, Staerk, who has previously worked as both a police officer and insurance investigator, would hear through small-town grapevines of people requiring simple assistance. If he heard of someone needing a bag of groceries, he would use his stealth training to deliver that bag, ring the doorbell, and disappear before he could be forced to take the credit.

That delightful ding-dong-ditch has evolved with the assistance of his wife and all the anonymous Santa Spirits who contribute to the cause. He said people from across the region give him whatever they feel they can, trusting the money will go where it is needed.

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Suggestions for people to help come from across the community and not all of them are accepted. Each year, the group selects someone to assist. First, Staerk said the Santa Spirits see if the home is owned or rented and then cover any back rent or currently due rent. Then, he said, they make sure the home has its utilities paid and food on the table. After that, Staerk said, comes the fun stuff.

Staerk takes the privacy of the people helped by the Santa Spirits efforts and the anonymity of the Santa Spirits themselves extremely seriously. He shared some of his favorite moments over the past years of delivering Christmas cheer, including once when a young autistic child, who is usually non-verbal toward strangers, took his hand and rattled away several questions to him – because he thought Staerk was the real and true Santa Claus.

“He just opened up,” he said. “It was probably one of the best gifts we could get as a group. We helped that child blossom and open up. We hope he carries it with him for the rest of his life.”

This year, Staerk said the group of anonymous donors helped a single mother in the town who is going through a health crisis. He said the group was able to help her children have a great Christmas and assist with the transportation costs and bills accrued by her current condition. He said they were also able to donate gift cards to a group home serving mentally disabled adults.

In fact, Staerk and the Santa Spirits do not give cash to families. They give them receipts for bills paid as well as an assortment of other gifts based on need. He said he interviews friends, families and neighbors to identify what each family could use the most.

“All these people who have received gifts from us are all standing around with us, crying and hugging,” he said. “We are giving them assurances people out there are concerned about them, whether we know them or not. They are part of our community and our village. If you are helping your community grow, you are helping yourself grow.”

Staerk said he starts looking for donors – or Santa Spirits – for next Christmas as soon as the people are helped from the current year's list.

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