Last year, Time magazine named the 11 best “selfless Santas” in the United States, but at least one doesn’t live near the North Pole. In fact, he resides much closer to home — in Daphne, to be exact.
After his wife passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1999, Ernest, now better known as Santa Ernest, set out on a mission to provide love, hope and joy to those he believed needed it most.
Having spent a considerable amount of time with his wife in hospice care, Santa Ernest wanted to recognize the support it provided for him and his family. While most families may donate books, magazine subscriptions and photos among other items, Santa Ernest wanted to do something a little out of the ordinary.
“I’m going to grow a beard and become a hospice Santa Claus,” he said.
When the idea suddenly came to him in 2003, Santa Ernest made two phone calls, one to Mercy Medical in Daphne, asking the facility if he could don the world-renowned red suit and become a Santa Claus hospice volunteer — if such a thing even existed, he wondered.
This Christmas will mark the 12-year anniversary of that conversation and the subsequent founding of the largest Santa service charity in the world: Santa America.
“It’s unbelievable,” Santa Ernest said.
With over 200 Santas across the country, Santa America focuses on one special mission, to “provide an unhurried visit to families facing physical or emotional crisis from a loving, committed, trained and backgrounded Santa.”
According to Santa Ernest, all Santas are highly trained and subject to extensive, “highest standard” background checks similar to those required of a doctor, nurse or social worker. Each Santa also receives special training in death, bereavement, post-traumatic stress and autism.
“These are Santas who are serious, people who believe in what Santa is … they combine around this mission of going around and visiting children where typically a Santa would not go,” he said.
Santa Ernest said special training is also required in federal and state patient privacy regulations, and Santa America is fully compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), ensuring confidentiality and respect for the patient and family’s privacy.
Currently, the international organization consists of 75 percent real-bearded Santas, ranging in age from their early 40s to late 80s, who live in 42 states and six foreign countries including Germany, Australia and Brazil, among others. Further, Santa Ernest said those involved with Santa America come from many walks of life, with volunteers’ occupations ranging from professional types to truck drivers, and he even named one volunteer who recently retired from the U.S. Army Special Forces that currently handles Santa duty at Fort Morgan.
“They’re everywhere. But we all seem to have one thing in common and that is how important love can be … especially for children who are dealing with emotional and physical crisis,” he said. “There’s something about having Santa as your personal friend, that isn’t just a visit. This isn’t just going to the mall to get your picture taken.”
Additionally, the organization provides a children’s disaster relief support program in conjunction with the American Red Cross. While the group may organize a “convoy of toys” for children victimized by disasters, they more importantly offer emotional support.
Santa Ernest told the story of one child who was trapped with his mom in their attic during Hurricane Katrina. After the traumatic experience, the child stopped speaking, he said.
After the hurricane, Santa Ernest said he was giving away basketballs when the child dropped the basketball he was given and ran full speed toward him, speaking for the first time in eight months saying, “‘Santa Claus! I thought you were dead!’”
“That was the beginning of his life,” Santa Ernest said. “That was the moment … if that isn’t the spirit of Christmas, I don’t know what is.”
The photo of Santa Ernest hugging the child is now known as the “Hurricane Hug,” he said, and it has even appeared on USA Today’s website.
“There is no toy that has ever been or ever will be that is a substitute for someone putting their arms around you and loving you in a desperate situation,” he said. “I think a loving hug can actually heal someone. I really believe it has that force. It certainly has the power of calming and wonder to it … knowing Santa Claus is in your corner, it gives you hope.”
But Santa Clauses with Santa America do not just focus on hospice or disaster needs alone. They also visit regular hospitals, military personnel and children with special needs like autism.
Just recently, the group held an event with Goodwill Easter Seals of the Gulf Coast in Spanish Fort, where they provided an ultra-low sensory environment for over 800 severely handicapped children.
Many of the children in attendance were able to get their first-ever photo with Santa Claus because they typically cannot handle the atmosphere in places — like shopping malls — where photos are usually taken, Santa Ernest said.
Furthermore, he said many families were able to capture their first-ever Christmas photo.
“We have nothing against toys, but at the end of the day, if you give a child a toy, the visit becomes about the toy,” he said. “If you bring love, hope and joy to a child and family, the focus of joy stays with the child.”
Aside from Santa Ernest, there are two other Eastern Shore-area Santa America members, Santa Walt, who volunteers with Springhill Home Health and Hospice, and Santa John, who volunteers at Mercy Medical hospice.
Outside of Santa America, Lagniappe tracked down four other Mobile-area Santa Clauses who, while not a part of the organization, promote the same message of love.
Santa Mike donned his first fake beard in 1973 during college, while working as a 5th grade student-teacher. When asked why he initially wanted to portray Santa Claus, he simply responded, “Well, who wouldn’t?”
He later went on to play the role of Kris Kringle in Mobile’s Entertainer Dinner Theatre performance of “Here’s Love,” the musical version of “Miracle on 34th Street,” he said.
Now sporting a genuine, authentic white beard of his own, Santa Mike works for Jim Owen Studios and spends the majority of his time visiting area elementary schools, where he recalled an experience with one student during a photo shoot.
“In the process of picking her up, I felt something pop in my shoulder,” he said. About four months later, Santa Mike could hardly move his arm. The end result was several torn ligaments, which resulted in surgery and the placement of three screws in his shoulder. However, Santa Mike said the incident never once deterred him from his traditional duties.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat, I really would,” he said.
Santa Dave, who has performed the role regularly for 11 years, started when he worked at a Sears store during college. They needed a Santa, he said. Now, Santa Dave fulfills many roles, including at private parties and even at city of Mobile events like the former Christmas parade and the annual Christmas tree lighting.
“I tell people, it’s more of a blessing for me,” he said.
For Santa Dave, serving special needs children is the highlight of his job. Just recently, he visited Mobile’s The Learning Tree, a nonprofit organization specifically designed for special needs children. During his visit, some children were too excited to even sit down, Santa Dave said.
“It humbles you because you see what it really means, and when you see the kids look at you and smile, and come running into your arms, you can’t escape that,” he said. “We represent an ideal and because of that, it’s not me, it’s not you, it’s something larger than all of us. It’s hope for these kids.”
Santa Milton, who is currently in his 10th year of being Santa, was actually recruited when Mark Allen, president of the Instant Photo Corporation of America (IPCA), approached him about a job.
“He said, ‘Don’t be disturbed, but have you ever thought about being Santa Claus?’” he recalled.
Santa Milton said those who knew him personally were actually surprised when he first accepted the job as Santa Claus, admitting that he wasn’t really that much of a “people person.” Now, when he puts on the big red suit, his more personable side comes out.
“You got to fit the character,” he said.
Santa Milton even recalled a recent incident when he took his mother to the doctor’s office and a little boy kept looking at him, trying to figure him out, in the waiting room.
“He came over there and he says, ‘I want a truck for Christmas,’” Santa Milton said. “Finally, I put him on my lap and started talking to him.”
Santa Milton recalled a similar incident when a woman recognized him at a local shopping center.
“She stopped her car and said, ‘You must be Santa Claus!’” he said.
In addition to both working for IPCA, Santa Dave and Santa Milton have also worked at malls, where they said parents typically bring children who are nursery-school age, special needs or too sick to go to school that day.
“I remember one time, they picked up a boy out of a wheelchair and gave him to me. I was almost in tears when they left because you change when you put this (suit) on,” Santa Dave said. “I tell people, it makes me a better man than I was because of this.”
For one female Santa (yes, female Santa), who will be called Santa Jane on the condition of anonymity, the idea of being Santa Claus came in 2006 after an incident when a hired Santa failed to show up for a party and another incident when a Santa showed up reeking of cigarette smoke.
“That can’t be Santa,” she said. “Enough adults are unreliable in these children’s lives. Enough adults come up with excuses. There’s got to be something … and if it’s not the magic of Christmas, I don’t know what it should be.”
Even though she has a fake white beard, Santa Jane makes sure she uses the right amount of glue called “spirit gum,” allowing children to pull, tug and question its authenticity all they want.
In fact, she spoke of one recent visit with a 10-year-old boy who was beginning to doubt Santa Claus. After their encounter, Santa Jane said the little boy believed in Santa again.
She also recalled a time when a boy said the last time he saw Santa, he was black.
“I wasn’t anticipating that,” she said. “(I told him) ‘Don’t you know I’m all the colors of all the people of the world,’ and he stood there stunned. (I said) ‘You go home and you tell all your friends that love is all the colors. He said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he left. I could have messed that one up. Maybe there is a magic in Christmas because it helps me answer the kids with what they need, so there is magic.”
Santa Jane said times like those keep her dressing up as Santa from year to year, attending an average of 25 parties each season in addition to visiting nursing homes, hospitals and the Ronald McDonald House.
“What more can you need than that?” she said. “You can’t need anything more than that.”
So, each year, there’s not just one Santa, on one day of the year, eating cookies and milk before magically delivering a bag full of gifts under Christmas trees across the world. There’s hundreds of thousands of Santas making a difference in the community every day.
“Santa is there 365 days of the year … as long as you believe, [we] will be here,” Santa Ernest said. “Because of your belief, the spirit of Santa Claus lives on.”