After 30-plus years of giving gifts, meals to keiki, Soltren retiring

LIHUE — Santa Claus comes to Kauai twice a year.

Everyone knows that he comes once on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to the keiki, but what many people may not know is that the big man in red has another alias. He is disguised as a local member of the community, who has been serving Kauai’s kids during the holiday season for over three decades.

His name is Luis Soltren.

“He’s their Santa. He’s their Uncle Santa. He’s the real Santa in their life,” said Rosie Carrillo of the Children’s Justice Center. “He’s known so well in the community, he’s not a stranger to them. He doesn’t have to do this, but he loves it.”

After over 30 years of giving Kauai’s underprivileged children presents, food and entertainment, Soltren celebrated his last year of “Luis Soltren’s Christmas for Keiki” Friday at Kukui Grove Center.

“This is my last year doing this. But I’ll be doing something else,” Soltren told The Garden Island. “I’m going to get my confirmation in martial arts in the style of karate I’ve been doing since I was 13.”

He plans to go to Australia to master the karate style, then return to Kauai to open up his own karate school to help kids on a more consistent basis.

“What I’ll be doing soon is that I’ll be able to help these kids every day, not just once a year. And that’s what I really want to do,” Soltren said.

Arriving at Kukui Grove with bags upon bags of free food for families and children, Soltren was greeted by friends and members of the community that he has helped in his lifetime of service.

Helping kids on Kauai has been Soltren’s mission since he was a young adult. Now at the age of 64, Soltren reflected that this program was his way of giving back.

“I was one of these kids. I grew up as one of these kids. I didn’t have anything, everything we got during Christmas time was given to us by a guy who was just like me,” he said. “So I became just like that guy. He planted a seed in me over 60 years ago. And I’m just planting seeds for the past 30-plus years and I guarantee you, one of these kids are going to do well in life and will start giving back.”

Friday’s food was provided by Darlene Chung of McDonald’s, who Soltren said has been a huge part of helping him and his program over the years. In addition to free meals, the children were gifted with a day out, courtesy of Soltren and other volunteers.

“McDonald’s gave us free food which I brought here, so the kids are going to eat a meal, and then I’m going to go to the theater and buy movie tickets for them, because a lot of these kids can’t go to the movies,” Soltren said. “Then they have a wish list. We’ll go to Kmart, and then they’ll buy whatever they want.”

The night then concluded with a dinner at JJ’s Broiler for around 50 people. The tab was paid for by Soltren.

The owners of JJ’s Broiler help out, he explained. “They only charge me for the food, not the venue or anything, because we’re friends.”

The children who participate in this day of celebration are from Children’s Justice Center, which works with abused kids, kids who don’t have a home and those who are in foster care.

The event was coordinated by Rosie Carrillo, who also retired this year. She hopes the program will continue for a long time, even without Soltren and herself.

“I’m hoping that I can gather the community and private funders to continue this because really, it’s the only program of its kind,” Carrillo said. “We reach out to so many agencies to help. It’s been a program that has impacted of thousands and thousands of children. I’ve been with him for 12 to 14 years, but these kids always remember Uncle Louie. He changed a day for them; he made it about family.”

About 72 kids participated in Friday’s program. Soltren said it couldn’t have been done without the help of Chad Waters, who has supported Soltren through times of need.

“It’s just the least we can do,” Waters said. “Luis has been doing this for 30 years and I’ve been helping for the past few years, but it’s just great to see these kids have a Christmas and presents that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Waters, like Carrillo, hopes that this won’t be the last year of this program, but recognizes there will be a large void to fill without its two leaders.

“Luis is the heart and soul of this, along with Rosie as well. I just show up and do the easy part. But they spend the time, energy and commitment,” Waters said.

As Soltren sat down on the stage, he smiled and said, “It’s not really a goodbye, it’s just a change.”

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