George Cruys is a recipient of the San Francisco Education Fund’s 2016-17 Distinguished Service Award. This post was updated 4/21/2017
This winter, many children at San Francisco’s Chinese Education Center celebrated their very first holiday season in the United States. Right by their side was volunteer George Cruys.
George is something of a celebrity at this public elementary school, due in no small part to his role as the school’s resident Santa Claus.
The idea occurred to him to play the part of St. Nick after he started volunteering through the San Francisco Education Fund more than 15 years ago. “I was in a Toys “R” Us collecting a zillion toys for my nephews,” George said. “I came across a display that said ‘Santa Suit, $50’. I walked past it, and then I stopped. I said ‘Wait a minute, for 50 bucks, I could be Santa Claus.’ And I went right back and bought that suit.”
The costume has since undergone an upgrade, and the tradition has grown; each year George buys a unique gift for every child at the school — about 80 total this year. While he once wrapped each present himself, he now recruits friends and colleagues to join him. They wrap all the presents and then play different characters at the school before winter break.
“My friend Bill is the moose every year. We have a Christmas moose,” George said. “We tried to get a reindeer costume, but the moose costume was better.”
George got his start as a tutor after reading aloud to a group of students at his office for a national read aloud day. He loved the event and wanted to get involved further by volunteering more regularly at the Chinese Education Center near work, but he had some trepidation. Having no children of his own, he wasn’t used to working with kids, and he did not speak a word of Chinese. But the school warmly welcomed him as a member of their community, and his concerns soon melted away as he got to know the children and staff.
“He’s someone who cares deeply about kids and about newcomer students,” said Victor Tam, the school principal. “He cares in a very genuine and sincere way. And on top of that he’s someone who just has a positive attitude about him and a really good sense of humor. He carries a sense of joy and care in everything that he does.”
George works with students on their English skills each Friday afternoon. He’s found some creative ways around the language barriers.
“Initially that went slowly,” George said. “[I’d say] ‘How are you,’ ‘What’s your name,’ that kind of stuff. The kids were good but they were not really engaged because it’s kind of work, so I thought, ‘How do we make this fun for the kids?’ So I went online and got a bunch of funny animal photos. I printed those out, and I came into class with about 15-20 funny animal pictures. I would put one out at a time and ask ‘What’s happening here?’ And the kids would crack up, but they would be very engaged.”
Having a caring adult like George stick around for years would be valuable to any school, but perhaps especially for one like the Chinese Education Center. The school is designed for children who are new to the country, and students complete just one year there before transitioning to another school.
“In most schools the parent community has a commitment of at least five or six years in an elementary program,” Principal Tam explained. “We don’t have that luxury. Our families come in and it’s very transitional. George is someone who is right there throughout all the changes and principals and teachers. He’s been a constant, and he’s someone we lean on a great deal. We’re so thankful to have him as one of our core volunteers and core supports.”
For George, that sense of community is just as strong.
“I encourage everybody to find a small school where they can become known and where they can make a difference over a period of time,” George said. “I walk in there now and I know the principal, who is a gem — he’s the funniest guy I know. I know all of the teachers. I know the janitor. I’ve also gotten to know a lot of other volunteers who are very dedicated: from Wells Fargo, where I work, the Rotary Club, Asian Connection Bay Area, the Hilton Hotel, the San Francisco Police Department—all over the community.”
All volunteers are generous in giving their time, but George goes above and beyond, Principal Tam said.
“He is someone who really deserves recognition.” Principal Tam said. “In my 25 years as a school district employee, he stands out as someone who is definitely a superstar.”
Read about the other recipients of the 2016-17 Distinguished Service Awards: