Wednesday, February 8, 2023

‘Letters to Santa’ House Serves Both Children and the Homeless

Courtesy Photo

It takes a lot of effort to create Christmas magic for your own kids – imagine doing it for an entire community. It’s a venture Nicole and Neil Billock have taken on with gumption (and lots of lights).

For the third year, the Billocks are hosting Coronado’s own “Letters to Santa” house, which is adorned with lights, holiday blow-up decorations, and, most importantly, a glittering red mailbox for North Pole-bound letters. Each child who writes receives a response from Santa himself.

Watching and speaking with excited children year after year alone makes it worth it, Nicole Billock said. But there is a larger purpose at work: the responses are penned by students enrolled in Mission Academy, a homeless recovery program hosted by the San Diego Rescue Mission.

“This is one way we help students feel connected to the community and build back their self worth,” Billock said. “They feel like they’re part of something good and special in the community, as opposed to feeling unseen by society.”

Students enrolled in Mission Academy spend 12 months in a holistic program focused on wellness, education and job training, employment, and housing. Seeing the impact the letters have on students is the best part for Billock, who serves as vice chairman of the San Diego Rescue Mission’s Board of Directors.

“We look at homelessness as a heart issue,” Billock said. “People come in broken, and being a part of a nice, normal Christmas is a step toward healing. In a way, it connects them with the innocence of being a child again.”

Courtesy photo

Neil Billock was the mastermind behind the house. He came home one day with a mailbox and posted from his wife’s Facebook page that the holiday post office was open for business. The first year, the couple partnered with a youth group to write responses, but in 2021, they shifted to partnering with Mission Academy.

“Everyone is one bad thing happening away from being homeless,” Billock said. “I look at each of the students, not from the past, but with hope and the future.”

Students are not mandated to participate in the program, but the mission hosts a party for those who choose to help out. This year, Billock estimated that about 20 people joined.

The Billocks first became involved with the San Diego Rescue Mission when their daughters, now 8 and 11, were under three years old. Nicole Billock’s parents had been volunteering there for over 15 years, so the couple took a tour. The emergency shelter for women and children was particularly poignant: there were mattresses on the floor with toys strewn about from the children living there, whose mothers often had fled abusive situations. They thought of their own young daughters.

First, the family donated financially. As their children grew, and she had more time, Nicole Billock got more involved and was eventually invited to sit on the Board of Directors and serving on or chairing various committees.

“We love doing this for our neighbors in Coronado,” Billock, a San Diego native, said. “Growing up, this is where I’ve always wanted to live. But when you can tie it to something making a greater impact in San Diego – that’s really special.”

The “Letters to Santa” house is at 1040 Pine St. To receive a response from Santa, ensure you include a return address.


Megan Kitt
Megan Kitt
Megan's work as a journalist has taken her around the world, from across the United States to Tokyo and Kampala, but her passion lies in community reporting. She believes a quality news publication strengthens a community by informing and connecting its members. She holds BA degrees in journalism, English literature and creative writing; an MA degree in creative writing; and her photography has been published internationally. While on a reporting assignment in Uganda, she founded Tuli, a fair trade fashion brand that earned her industry acclaim, most notably by earning her the title Designer to Watch at New York Fashion Week in 2022. Megan's diverse experience in travel and career taught her to approach reporting eager to understand the many experiences and perspectives that make life so interesting. When she's not working, you can find Megan wrangling her two toddlers, hiking with her husband, and binging podcasts.Have a story for The Coronado Times to cover? Send news tips or story ideas to: [email protected]