JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- They can't be seen just yet, but holiday elves will soon appear at Joint Base Lewis-McChord when Santa's Castle hosts its 25th anniversary open house from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at 2094 Bitar Ave. on Lewis Main.

The all-volunteer staff works year-round to make Christmas brighter for military children, but the open house marks the beginning of the busy season, according to Shelly Hinzman, president of JBLM's Santa's Castle.

"It's a great way to kick off the season," she said. "Nobody's really thinking about Christmas yet, but we are."

The community is invited to tour the building and learn about volunteer and donation opportunities while enjoying refreshments. More elves are needed -- 50 to 100, ideally -- and command teams are encouraged to think about families in need of a helping hand this holiday.

Due to the transient nature of the military, some service members are not yet acquainted with JBLM's Santa's Castle, Hinzman said. The organization serves all active duty, as well as activated guard and reserve members on JBLM.

Families with a service member from E-4 and below are the target audience, but others are considered on a case-by-case basis.

"Everybody needs help from time to time," Hinzman said. "We try to make it fun, so it's not a stigma or anything like that."

Once a company or squadron-level command team or unit chaplain identifies and refers a family through the Santa's Castle website, elves contact the service member to set up a shopping appointment. There are no financial forms or interviews to complete when the service member arrives; just plain fun lies ahead.

"Service members and their families have enough stress," said Donna Handoe, Santa's Castle volunteer. "They don't need the added stress of 'how am I going to give my children a good Christmas.'"

A shopping elf whisks the family away with a large shopping cart. They roll through the castle halls, selecting gifts based on age and gender.

"We don't just hand them a toy," Hinzman said. "They get quite a bit -- between $50 and $80 (worth of toys) per child to take out with them. They get to choose it."

Every family selects: three toys, stocking stuffers, one game for the family and two books for each child.

"It's just one of those magical places," Hinzman said. "Once you get in, it's hard to get out."

Volunteering at Santa's Castle can be addictive, Hinzman and Handoe agreed.

"When I literally saw a young Soldier physically relax when he knew that we took care of Christmas for him -- that he didn't have to worry about that anymore -- I was hooked," Hinzman said.

She started as an elf in 2011, and Handoe started the following holiday season.

"Elfing here is a verb," Hinzman said, noting that volunteers can be service members, military spouses, retirees, veterans and civilians from the community.

One doesn't need to work for the military to become an elf, but base access is required and youth volunteers must be at least 15 years old.

For those unable to volunteer, donations are encouraged year-round. New toys are accepted, but monetary contributions are useful, too. A special purchasing elf is allotted money to shop, and that elf sure knows how to stretch a dollar, Hinzman said.

Santa's Castle gave away $197,372 worth of toys to 921 JBLM families in 2018, benefiting 2,075 children. This year, all toys will be distributed to parents during the first two weeks of December.

The website referral page opens to chains of command Oct. 1, and the deadline to nominate families is Nov. 8. Referrers must be at the squadron or company-command level.

Command teams are encouraged to attend the open house or visit jblmsantascastle.org for more information.