Waiting for Santa can be a warm experience, inside and out

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Sounds of conversation and laughter fill the front yard of the Gardena house as parents, children and community members mill about, sipping on hot apple cider and wolfing down homemade cookies. The crowd waits with anticipation for the arrival of the Gardena Police Officers Association's Santa float.

The owner of the home, Aileen Araki, 62, pours cider into Styrofoam cups near the front gate of her yard, watching the crowd and smiling.

Sounds of conversation and laughter fill the front yard of the Gardena house as parents, children and community members mill about, sipping on hot apple cider and wolfing down homemade cookies. The crowd waits with anticipation for the arrival of the Gardena Police Officers Association's Santa float.

The owner of the home, Aileen Araki, 62, pours cider into Styrofoam cups near the front gate of her yard, watching the crowd and smiling.

Araki has hosted this annual get-together at her home, located on 182nd Street between Gardena High School and Vermont Avenue since 1992, and it has become a neighborhood Christmas tradition, she said.

“It's something for the kids to remember,” Araki said. “It's a good memory to have. They will grow up and say 'Gee Mom, remember when we used to to go to that lady's house and see Santa and she would have hot cookies and cider?' and maybe they can do the same thing for someone else and pay it forward.”

Araki said the event also helps to bring the neighborhood together to reconnect and that it creates a friendly community environment.

The tradition first began after Araki, along with her late husband and one of her sons, signed up to ride on the Santa float and during one of the float's stops, someone brought them hot drinks.

She thought it was a great idea and decided to do the same for her neighborhood, she said.

Initially, Araki flagged down the float to offer treats and hot drinks to Santa and his volunteers. Eventually the Gardena Police Officers Association began making her home a scheduled stop on the Santa float's route, and so the 20-year tradition was born, she said.

Araki's contribution to the community goes far beyond just providing refreshments during the holiday season, Joanne Alfonso, a long-time friend said.

“She watches over the neighborhood and is so serious about everything being Ok, and for her to volunteer all of this is really amazing,” Alfonso said.

She said Araki is the “first one in line” to do anything that benefits the neighborhood and is always trying to make it a safer and better place.

Araki said she grew up near her current residence, but moved away to Santa Monica when she got married. After being away for many years she moved back to the neighborhood to find that crime and graffiti had become a problem. So, she took action, she said.

“It (the neighborhood environment) started changing,” Araki said. “We started working with the police department more, or I was, to clean up the graffiti and people started taking the bars off their windows and started feeling safer.”

Araki said that bringing her neighborhood together for cookies and cider during the holidays helps keep that positive atmosphere alive. She hopes the children who experience it will learn the value of giving back to their community.

Paying it forward is the gift that keeps on giving.