I wear many hats in my job at Simply Smiles, but I never thought one of them would be a Santa hat...accompanied by a red suit...and a white wig...and a beard. Let’s just say that “Santa-like” is literally the last adjective someone would use to describe me. As the only other male on the Christmas party crew besides Bryan, it was determined that I would be Santa Claus. It was a bold choice...so unexpected...but could I pull it off? Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive as the party approached. And not just because I had to figure out how to fill out a Santa suit. The loss of our friend Tanner -- a boy who all the volunteers knew and loved, and whose infectious laughter would surely be missed at the Christmas party -- strengthened our resolve to put on an event like the town of La Plant had never seen before.
We arrived in Rapid City on Tuesday, loaded up the box truck with all of the toys purchased by our wonderful supporters, and shopped for all of the food we’d be serving at the meal. We got to the Reservation late Tuesday night, and after a solid night’s sleep, we set out on Wednesday to transform the La Plant community center into a winter wonderland. With the help of our volunteer staff (thanks, Diane, Jess, Judy, Nancy, and Jen!), we wrapped all of the presents, hung hundreds of lights, decorated the tree, installed an inflatable reindeer and a penguin family outside, covered the tables to look like presents, and crafted paper snowflakes. It looked amazing!
On the day of the party, our guests started arriving around 6:00. Once the kids had scoped out their gifts under the tree, and we had given plenty of piggyback rides, it was time for dinner. Everyone enjoyed a hearty meal - complete with mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and even brownie sundaes for dessert.
As we finished serving dinner, I received the signal from Bryan that it was time for me to put on the Santa suit. In case you are wondering how I plumped myself up, I wore the fleece lining of my winter jacket, cinched it tight at the bottom, and stuffed two extra sheets inside. Sam assisted me in putting on the red jacket, as well as the wig and beard. I was ready for my debut.
When I entered the community center as Santa, I was pleasantly surprised to hear not laughter, but applause from everyone in town. About six kids came running at me and gave me a group hug, which was probably one of the most adorable moments of my life. These little kids truly believed that I -- as ridiculous as I looked -- was Santa, in La Plant on a special pre-Christmas visit to the Reservation. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to spoil it for them.
I handed out the presents with some help from my trusted team of elves, and the rest of the children tried to contain their excitement as they waited to hear their names called. The slightly chaotic process of handing out gifts to nearly 100 eager children went surprisingly well, and before I knew it, the party was over. Families collected their kids’ presents - along with their household gifts of a papasan chair, a handmade blanket, and a Kristen Graves Christmas CD - and said their goodbyes. So many of the adults thanked each of us individually, and we knew the party had served its purpose; we had created an atmosphere of joy in which the people of La Plant could forget their troubles for a few hours and celebrate the holidays together.
As of late, tragedy seems omnipresent. Such tragedy can harden you, make you cold, indifferent, and cynical. It can cause you to question important aspects of your life. But as I witnessed at the Christmas party, kindness still exists in the world.
We have seen this kindness in the outpouring of love from the Simply Smiles community time and again, but especially in the past few weeks. Over 100 people attended the gathering of remembrance in Naugatuck to honor their friend, Tanner. All of the presents in this year’s toy drive were purchased within three weeks. Each child who came to the party received two gifts, and there were even plenty of presents for any additional guests we weren’t expecting. The children of La Plant smiled, and laughed, and played...and you made that possible.
During this holiday season, we should be thankful for all of the good in our lives, and we need to commit ourselves to creating more good in the world. It’s imperative that we keep hope alive. That may sound trite, but it’s true. We can offer a smile to a stranger. We can be kind to our neighbors. And we can all put on our metaphorical Santa suits and extend a hand to someone in need.
You might just get the best hug of your life in return.
Wishing you the best this holiday season,