He used to be a mixed martial arts fighter. He’s a nurse and a National Guard sergeant. And he’s also taken on the role of Santa.

Thomas Herrera, 28, started Operation Christmas Eve in 2015 to raise money for children around Austin, Minn., who wouldn’t normally receive presents.

Since kicking it off five years ago, Herrera has raised over $87,000. Now, he plans to continue Operation Christmas Eve for families around the Alexandria area.

Growing up and attending Carlos Elementary, Herrera remembers receiving his Christmas presents from the Salvation Army.

“We couldn’t afford Christmas presents,” Herrera said. “There were a lot of mouths to feed, and my parents had to take care of bills.”

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He recalls putting Rollerblades at the top of his list one year.

“I wanted Rollerblades so badly for Christmas,” Herrera said. “They were the in thing at that time, and the Salvation Army made it happen.”

Herrera looks to his own childhood as a reminder of the difference he can make. The header image of the Operation Christmas Eve 2020 GoFundMe page is of Herrera opening up the Rollerblades.

“That smile that I have is something that motivates me to create those types of moments for kids now,” Herrera said.

He commented how 2020 has been a particularly difficult year for people who have been laid off and are struggling to provide for their families.

“I just want to help relieve that stress and anxiety related to Christmas present shopping, especially for the ones who can’t afford it,” Herrera said.

Turning online donations into tangible gifts

Herrera does GoFundMe fundraisers and posts on Facebook to promote Operation Christmas Eve.

He usually starts fundraising pages in May or June, but his first GoFundMe this year kicked off in August. Herrera closes the fundraisers at the end of November and withdraws the proceeds to go gift shopping.

Herrera, his wife, their friends, and anyone willing to help split up to search for the items.

Nail polish, books, sports equipment. Everything purchased is paired with lists families send Herrera or things related to children’s gender and age group.

Closer to Christmas, Herrera wakes up before the sun to bag toys, label them by family name and load his vehicle.

“It’s a pretty amazing, transforming experience emotionally,” Thomas said. “Just driving to all these families’ houses, knocking on the doors and actually witnessing and seeing their expressions is, for me, one of the greatest feelings ever.”

Thomas Herrera smiles next to a recipient of the Operation Christmas Eve program. “It’s a really surreal experience just to know that all of the money that’s been raised is going to be helping children in the community who otherwise would go without on Christmas,” said Kelly Herrera, his wife. (Contributed)
Thomas Herrera smiles next to a recipient of the Operation Christmas Eve program. “It’s a really surreal experience just to know that all of the money that’s been raised is going to be helping children in the community who otherwise would go without on Christmas,” said Kelly Herrera, his wife. (Contributed)

Finding ways to fundraise

Herrera’s most recent method to raise money is to sell autographed memorabilia.

He collected various autographed items while he was an MMA fighter. Herrera was ranked first in Minnesota and among the top five fighters in the Midwest, and he fought from 2011 to 2018.

During his time fighting MMA, Herrera won four championship titles and said he used his platform to remind people to help those who are less fortunate.

Herrera stuck to his word, donating everything he made from his MMA fights, ticket sales and sponsorships to Operation Christmas Eve.

Some of the items he’s selling this year include a jersey, photo, Sports Illustrated issue and goalie mask, signed by members of the U.S. hockey team that earned the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. His GoFundMe states there will also be autographed items from Minnesota sports teams, such as the Vikings, Twins and Wild.

One of the items Herrera is selling to fundraise for Operation Christmas Eve 2020 is a team-signed jersey from the U.S. hockey team that earned the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. All money raised outside the Christmas season is donated to children’s hospitals, food shelves, school supply drives and other similar programs. (Contributed)
One of the items Herrera is selling to fundraise for Operation Christmas Eve 2020 is a team-signed jersey from the U.S. hockey team that earned the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. All money raised outside the Christmas season is donated to children’s hospitals, food shelves, school supply drives and other similar programs. (Contributed)

Bringing the cause to a new community

Herrera and his wife, Kelly, moved from southern Minnesota to Alexandria a few months ago. Thomas went to elementary school in the area, and Kelly graduated from high school in Alexandria. The two met while living in Austin, but they decided to move back to the area recently.

“I was so grateful to be a part of that, and that really helped our relationship grow, working together to raise money for Operation Christmas Eve,” Kelly said. “Now we’re back in Alexandria, just continuing to give back, knowing that’s something that the two of us value so much together: doing what we can to help those in need.”

Before moving, Thomas said he debated whether to continue Operation Christmas Eve in a different place. He considered all the time and energy put into fundraising efforts, social media promotions, shopping trips, present wrapping sessions and home deliveries. Last year, Thomas said he made deliveries to about 300 children.

“Now that I am a member of the Alexandria community, this is something that I want to do for this community, too,” Thomas said. “I want to leave places better than when I first came there.”