By Sonali Das
Santa will be making this Christmas holiday special for some needy children in Champaign-Urbana thanks to the volunteer efforts of two UI staff members.
For more than five years, Rick Scott and his wife, Joyce, both employees in the Division of Operation and Maintenance, have dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus and entertained local children.
The inspiration for the project started in 1991 while Rick and Joyce were shopping for gifts for their own children. The couple noticed a small boy in one of the toy aisles. Dressed in tattered clothing, the boy was staring with a look of wonder at a statue of Santa on the shelf, Joyce remembered.
"He just stood looking at Santa with such awe," she said. "It was very moving for us to see how Santa really affected this child."
That experience recalled difficult memories of past Christmas holidays for Rick. As a child growing up in an orphanage, the holidays were a lonely time for him. Having little money to buy gifts, he said he understands the emptiness many children feel when Santa does not come.
It was those childhood sacrifices that made him appreciate the real meaning of Christmas and ultimately motivated him to bring joy to others in need, he said.
"We didn't have much in the orphanage but we always tried to keep the spirit of Christmas alive," he said. "We recognized kind acts when we saw them. Too often today, people lose the real meaning of the season and they lose touch with that spirit."
Inspired by the little boy in the store, the couple devised a plan to dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus and deliver donated gifts to children at local charities.
"I have always believed in giving back to the community," Rick said. "Playing Santa was always something I wanted to do so I figured this would be my way of giving back."
Armed with a red velvet Santa suit and a sack full of donated presents from his colleagues at O&M, Rick and his wife hit the streets visiting the Crisis Nursery Center and homeless shelters throughout the Champaign-Urbana area.
The response from the children was overwhelming. Initially, many of the children at the centers were apprehensive about his visit, but Rick said they soon became more receptive and outgoing as presents were distributed.
"So many of these kids come from dysfunctional families," he said. "Many of them suffer from spiritual and mental crises. Seeing Santa brought a lot of joy to their lives."
In addition to reading a Christmas story, Rick said he enjoys talking with the children about their holiday wish list. He remembered one young girl at the Crisis Nursery who told Santa that all she wanted for Christmas was to be reunited with her family.
"She didn't care about material things," Rick said. "She was a true example of the Christmas spirit and the message we are trying to get across to people."
In addition to dressing up as Mrs. Claus and accompanying Santa on his visits, Joyce makes her own unique contribution to the gift bag. Each year she sews personalized teddy bears or hearts to give to each of the children they visit through the season. The long hours of sewing do not bother her, she said, but rather make the day more perfect for the kids.
"You can see that twinkle in their eyes when they see Santa," she said. "They really get thrilled and it makes all your work seem worthwhile. It has to be perfect."
Over the past few years, word of the couple's efforts has spread around the community and the demand for Santa and Mrs. Claus has increased tremendously. The couple have extended their scheduled visits to include Ogden Grade School, Champaign County Nursing home and the pediatric wings at Carle and Covenant hospitals in addition to their favorite local charities.
"We never say no to anyone," Rick said. "If they ask for us, we know that we can give a little of our time to give something back to the community."
Although both Rick and Joyce refuse any monetary donations for their time, they do encourage people to contribute to a local charity on their behalf.
"We are completely not-for-profit," said Joyce. "We feel it is our duty to give back to the community. The [look on the] children's faces is all the reward we need."
While their new-found popularity has been heartening for the couple, it has created a new problem. In the past, Rick and his wife relied solely on the donations from O&M for their Santa project, but the demand for small gifts has outweighed the supply. Currently, they are accepting donations from anyone wishing to contribute to the project.
Suggested items to donate: crayons, coloring books, story books, stuffed animals, used toys in good condition, candy canes. Donations can be left at: O&M Physical Plant (inside at the storers hardware counter), 1501 S. Oak, Champaign; or Campus Car Pool of the South Garage, 1701 S. Oak St. Champaign.