Community activist and Marine Corp. veteran Gonzalo Duran, who once ran for city council, is trying to get a jump on next Christmas as his Santa Claus outfit needs to be replaced.
A DeWitt Clinton High School graduate, Duran has spent the past 15 years dressing up as Santa — 10 with his company Devil Dog USA — to cheer up children during the holidays. But nearly three years of COVID has cut into the donations his company needed to donate the toys and hold the annual event for military families. Duran’s organization couldn’t operate the Santa program during the pandemic.
In a email sent to The Riverdale Press, Duran explains why he is reaching out to media and community organizations. “As the CEO of a veteran non-profit that helps veterans reintegrate into the community, I see it as my job to be an ambassador between the active duty military and the community as whole,” he wrote.
The Devil Dog USA Christmas program distribution gifts donated by the community to churches, shelters, schools and individual families, he stated. It also includes free handmade crocheted Santa hats for veterans and free crochet garments for the homeless. And this year, Duran included free professional family portraits with Santa those in shelters. Those items are made by a member of the Devil Dog named Liz.
Christmas donations for next year can be made through the Devil Dog USA website DevilDogUSAInc.org
A Belmont native, Duran spent eight years serving as sergeant with one tour in Iraq. During that time, he became a father of two.
After leaving the military, he had a difficult transition as he struggled to find work and ultimately became homeless. However, once he settled he attended and graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor of science in health science. He then worked with the U.S. veterans affairs office and labor department.
He became disenchanted in the federal job when he realized those agencies were more focused on making money than helping veterans and the poor. He was inspired to start the Bronx-based Devil Dog organization. He has created a hub for veterans coming back from combat to access vital resources. Those include housing programs, employment workshops and outlets for the community to engage with them.
Devil Dog USA works with such organizations as Confetti Party Place, Happy Faces by Ino, Today’s Pixel, Garifuna Veterans of America, MusArt and the Mt. Nebo Lodge Community Foundation.