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These secret Santas have been quietly raising money for Shakopee families in need

Tom Rademacher is a skinny man with wispy hair and a lot to say about what makes him tick. He’s got an addictive personality, he said, and he knows it. He smoked cigarettes most of his life and is a recovering alcoholic, going on four years sober. But about 18 years ago, a new addiction entered his life, and this time, it was a good one.

After Rademacher quit smoking in 2001, he decided to use his lungs for something healthy. He used to bike every day as a kid and teenager, back when Shakopee had more farmland than neighborhoods. So at age 39, he decided to buy himself a bike. The purchase was long overdue.

Rademacher started biking to his work at Anchor Glass, about three miles from his home in Shakopee. The short bike rides to work turned into 20-mile bike rides after work. Some days he bikes 50 miles.

One day, six years ago, Rademacher was listening to the radio while biking, and one of the hosts talked about cyclists who bike for charity. That’s what planted the seed that has turned into a five-year tradition for Rademacher: He decided to bike from Shakopee to Duluth and back to raise money for charity.

“I was biking the distance anyways, so why not raise money?” he said.

Addicted to cycling

For the past five years, the 57-year-old Shakopee native who has never been married or had kids gives the money he raises from his Duluth trips to Smiles for Christmas, a local nonprofit that gives Christmas gifts for Shakopee families in need.

“I don’t have kids, so this is my way of giving back,” Rademacher said.

Over the course of the last five years, Rademacher estimated he has raised nearly $12,000. He doesn’t have anyone to help him along the way, so usually, he’ll bike to a stopping point like St. Paul, mark where he left off, and bike back to his last stopping point to grab his car. That way, he said, he gets in the distance without having to carry everything he needs on his back as he bikes. The trip is about 360 miles round-trip, and it takes him about four days to complete.

But his biking doesn’t end after the trip. In the winter, Rademacher will bike on a stationery and sometimes, he’ll bike outside.

“You just have to watch out for the ice,” he said.

This summer, Rademacher said he missed maybe three or four biking days. Other than that, rain or shine, he biked at least 20 miles every day, usually along the Minnesota State Trail into Bloomington.

“I’m looking at this weather and thinking I better get out again today,” Rademacher said during the interview on a perfect fall day.

“I love just being outside,” he said. “It’s me and the bike and that’s it.”

Shakopee’s secret Santa

The organization Rademacher gives to, Smiles for Christmas, is a little-known charity in Shakopee, but it’s existed for 21 years. Local residents might have heard of it if they’ve attended meat raffles at the Pullman Club in downtown Shakopee or the bar’s annual beer bust, where the money raised goes to the nonprofit. The Shakopee Lions Club typically donates a couple thousand dollars each year to the group. Other than that, Smiles for Christmas flies under the radar: no website, email or official phone number.

And that’s on purpose.

Smiles for Christmas is run by a local Shakopee woman who does not want to be named since few people in Shakopee know who runs the nonprofit, and she wants to keep it that way. She communicates with two volunteers who speak with social workers at each of Shakopee’s schools to get a list of students whose families are in need. Those volunteers then reach out to the families, and tell the founder what materials are needed without giving away any names.

The money raised for Smiles for Christmas goes toward buying necessities and a few gifts for each family member: socks, underwear, snow pants, boots, a winter coat, mittens, a hat, shampoo, laundry detergent, curling irons, deodorant — the list goes on.

“We’re not spoiling these kids with 20 presents they don’t need,” the founder of the group said. “I mean, these kids are needy. We’re talking very basic gifts.”

The founder, along with 10 other volunteers who hide behind the wall of anonymity, have never seen the names of the families and children they help. Even thank you cards are redacted by volunteers or social workers who were asked to keep the names of the families hidden.

“I don’t want to know names,” the founder said. And she doesn’t want them to know her name.

Families who have benefited from Smiles for Christmas may never know who the secret Santa is behind the mission — they only know they’re thankful. Letters upon letters were stacked up in a box in the founder’s kitchen from anonymous families who thanked her for the generosity.

“It has been a long time since we have been able to smile but the day you wonderful people came to our home and surprised us with all these gifts, we could not believe our eyes,” one letter said. “Now we don’t have to use the food shelf for a while and we can put more than five dollars of gas in the car. It’s the little things that mean so much to us.”

Smiles for Christmas volunteers shop at Kohl’s year-round to get the best deals on clothing. In December, it’s game time. For two weeks, the founder’s house is stock-full of hundreds of boxes full of gifts. The founder said they’ve helped 502 children and their families over the past 21 years.

“We’re Shakopee’s Santa,” the woman who runs the nonprofit out of her house in Shakopee said.

Anyone interested in receiving help from or donating to Smiles for Christmas can call or text 612-207-6136.