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Her gift is to ease their suffering

Louisa McDonald wins honor for Santa's Brigade, which offers presents to sexually abused children.

On Christmas morning, several hundred local children in need, many of them victims of sexual abuse, will open 1,660 gifts donated by businesses and organizations through Louisa McDonald's Santa's Brigade project.

Santa's Brigade began in 1996 when founder and coordinator McDonald worked as community relations director at Sovereign Bank in Villanova, once Main Line Federal Savings Bank. She retired from the bank in 2000 but continues to organize Santa's Brigade from her Berwyn home.

McDonald said about 40 local businesses and organizations contribute gifts that are distributed to individuals in need listed by local charity or social service organizations. She has no Web site and says she has enough contributors that she does not need to solicit any more gifts.

For her 12 years of volunteer service through Santa's Brigade, McDonald recently received the Crime Victims Center (CVC) of Chester County's eighth annual John J. Crane Allied Professional Award for Excellence in Service to Victims of Sexual Abuse/Assault.

The award is named for the former chief deputy district attorney of Chester County, John Crane, who died in 1998. It was presented to McDonald at the CVC's annual holiday open house on Dec. 6.

CVC executive director Peggy Gusz said that Crane greatly assisted child victims by assigning one main attorney to cases to make it easier on the child and limiting interviews until after school to be more accommodating.

"The award was established not only to memorialize John's dedication and standards of excellence in providing services to victims of abuse, violence and sexual assault but also to continue with his efforts to share that commitment with his compatriots in the criminal justice system and to allied professionals in other fields," Gusz said.

In the first year of the project, 95 gifts were gathered, and numbers continued to increase to this year's 1,660 gift total.

McDonald wasn't sure exactly how many youngsters would share the gifts this year. But Brooke Hedderick of the Crime Victims Center said that 225 of the gifts went to about 75 children who are victims or family members of victims of sexual abuse or assault.

"Great things happened from small beginnings. I do Santa's Brigade because I love it and have fun doing it. To be recognized is very humbling and I am very honored by it," McDonald said.

Chester County First Assistant District Attorney Patrick Carmody said that the purpose of the Crane award is to recognize people who serve and speak for child victims as John Crane did. Carmody himself won the award in 2001.

"The holidays are difficult for people who have suffered," Carmody said. "It's sad to see a child lose their innocence because of the actions of a criminal. It is important to treat them as a child again and to show them that the world isn't all full of pain. Louisa brings Santa Claus to children who have suffered so much," he said.

Gift recipients range in age from infants to seniors, and the gifts range from $15 to $25. Each child receives between one and three gifts depending on the number of donors. McDonald said many seniors ask for gift cards to a grocery store to help pay for food.

Julia, 16, eagerly talked over the phone about the gifts wrapped under her tree from Santa's Brigade. She hopes that one of the boxes holds a digital camera because she loves photography. This is the first time Julia will receive gifts through the CVC from Santa's Brigade.

Julia was molested by a family friend and lives with her grandparents, who are on welfare. Julia, an area high school student, said her father is not involved in her life and her mother moved out of state. The program helped her family through the holidays because they are struggling to pay bills, she said.

"I probably wouldn't have gotten anything for Christmas, maybe something very small," Julia said.

Hedderick, a CVC program supervisor, has worked with McDonald since the organization teamed up with Santa's Brigade in 2003.

"We see so many people that have been impacted by violence and have a lot of financial needs, so it is nice for the mothers to be able to give their children a Christmas. Many of the kids ask for coats, gloves and hats," Hedderick said.