It was a simple request. To be part of her school choir on stage for the holiday show, the 8-year-old girl needed to wear red. She had two outfits "” shirts and pants handed down from her older brothers.

"You know Santa, more than anything I'd like to have a red dress, so I can sing with my school choir," she told him. It was not the only time a little one had tugged on Santa's heartstrings.

Another child says it's going to be a good Christmas because Dad's been sober for a couple weeks or because Mom has a job. Kids have shared more, but Santa's not saying. Santa is part counselor and part magic.

As for the dress, he made it happen. From a stack of clothing donations, there it was, a little dress. OK, it was more than a wink of his eye and a twist of his head, but there it was.

"Just a secondhand red dress absolutely brought tears of joy to this young child's face," Santa says, looking down briefly at his folded hands. "Not a $300 video gaming system; it was just a secondhand red dress so she could wear it and sing at her school pageant," he says. He looks up and smiles.

"They open their hearts up. It's tragic, it's heartbreaking. But it's happy, it's sad," says Santa. "I think Santa still symbolizes that trust and things that kids can relate to."

Very Convincing

I was searching for Santa. And I found him in Northern Kentucky at the Brighton Center. His laugh is more a "ha, ha, ha" that trails off gently and not the blustery punctuated "Ho! Ho! Ho!" of Santa lore. But it is warm and frequent. His smile does cause his eyes to twinkle. And, he believes.

The search led me to a place where teams of elves are hard at work sorting and cleaning used toys. Where appeal letters have gone out to big companies to support Adopt-a-Family and other efforts. Where staff and volunteers will bring Christmas to seniors and homeless teenagers. Where, surrounded by paintings and artifacts of Alaska, it seems like this guy could be very at home in the North Pole. But it's what he says that is most convincing.

"Kids truly get the true spirit of Christmas," Santa says. "And I think that is the magic of the holidays.

"They're not as jaded as we have become and they can truly see the holidays for what they really are "” a time when the impossible can become the possible. When the extraordinary can become the ordinary."

The line between magic and everyday things is lifted, he says.

"I've seen that. We've seen the impossible happen here for families. We've seen families reunited at Christmas. So, yes, I believe in Santa Claus and I truly believe that children truly do sense the true spirit of the holiday and more than we give them credit for."

Led By A Child

He certainly gives them credit for selflessness. He tells the story of one young boy who took his mother's hand and told her he didn't need anything. Of another boy who bought a GI Joe for his little brother, leaving him no money for a present for himself.

They bring their quarters and dimes to the used toy sale just a few days before Christmas and pick out gifts. You can buy a toy for a nickel. You can buy a bike for a dime. Hundreds of children line up two or three blocks for a chance to shop not only for themselves but for friends, parents and brothers and sisters.

"They'll sacrifice their own Christmas wishes, if you will, just to ensure their younger siblings have something underneath the tree for Christmas," he says.

Bah humbug, Santa says, to charges that the holiday is lost in an electronic-hungry frenzy.

Kids sit on Santa's lap and ask for coats. Or gloves.

At a shelter serving homeless teenagers, the gift lists are simple. Sweatshirts, socks. They want personal care items. For just a moment when he walks into the room, even the cynical ones often allow themselves a smile. He is, after all, Santa. "You know what those kids ask for? It's not an iPod or anything. They want a family," he says.

"When they are alone on Christmas Eve and our staff is the only family they've got," he says, they want a family.

Santa says foreclosure is breaking up families. No longer just an urban core issue, it extends well into the more rural areas. Struggling families are no longer able to care for older teenagers who may couch surf among friends for a while before that runs its course and they are on the street.

A Word of Advice

Things have changed. People who are used to writing the checks are now asking for help. "Since the economy has really turned difficult in the last three years, we are seeing a broad range of families coming in who used to be able to provide," Santa says.

But kids realize what's going on and how things have changed. They are resilient.

"If Santa could give parents a word of advice, (it would be that) the expectations that your kids have right now are not as big as (the ones) you put on yourself," Santa says.


Santa says he often sees a twinkle in the eyes of the seniors when he walks in wearing red fur and a shiny belt. "You might have some ornery answers and ornery requests, but it's still neat," he says. Seniors can be forgotten in the holiday rush, and some simply have no family.

So, the fellowship at the holiday party is a chance to exchange memories. "I remember when I was a kid growing up on the farm and we would spray paint walnuts and hang them up on a cedar tree that my dad cut down," one senior told him. Another remembered using tinfoil to make the star for the tree.

"Christmas is a common touchpoint to bring people together and share memories. We take these memories and use them for present strength and courage," Santa says.

"Whether it's a lonely senior or a homeless youth, we're still using the holidays for the same thing. Remember the good times, and if the good times were possible then, you know that they can be possible tomorrow." â– 

Dianne Gebhardt-French writes about the newsmakers of Northern Kentucky.
Contact her at (513) 297-6209 or

How to Help
To drop off gently used toys, support Adopt-a-Family, organize a toy collection or make a cash donation, you can track down Santa, c/o Development Director Bear Clifton, Brighton Center, 741 Central Ave., Newport. (859) 491-8303 or