While many people are struggling to find their “inner elf” at this time of year, he embodies the spirit of the season. He’s on a very special mission, as he has been for the past 33 years: to be Santa to those less fortunate. “It really feeds my soul. I will admit, though, that sometimes I wonder if I do it more for them or for me. I struggle with that.” Regardless of the reason, many people are happier as a result.
It all started when he was in college at the University of Arizona. His father had just passed away and his mother decided that instead of buying an expensive casket to bury her husband, she would use the money to honor his memory. She told her son that she wanted to build a house for someone; her son scoffed at the idea. “All I could think about (when she said she wanted to build a house) was why it wasn’t feasible, ” he explained. “Logically, I thought about buying the land, getting the permits, all of the obstacles that would prevent her from building this house.” He returned to the U of A for six weeks. When he returned home at Christmastime, he learned the house had been built and that his mother just needed him to complete the roof. “I learned from my mom that when you seem to have insurmountable obstacles in your path, nothing can stop you when you doing something good for someone else.” And so, in 1977, “Santa Claus” was born.
It started with one truck. He, his brother and his mother made the trip on Christmas Eve, just over the border to a small town littered with cardboard houses. Children ran through the dirt streets in the freezing weather without shoes. Some of the houses had gaping holes filled with various clothing items to keep the elements at bay. While it sounds like a less than cheery spot to spend Christmas, this modern day Saint Nick said, “I always find my Christmas spirit there.”
The tradition grew. What started out as one truck in 1977 has blossomed to a convoy of ten to fifteen trucks each year. All the family members are involved: brothers, sisters, wives and husbands, children, nieces and nephews and a smattering of family friends. They bring bags of food containing staples like peanut butter, rice, beans, canned goods and potatoes. (“They love the potatoes,” he smiled). They bring candy bags for the children and toys and stuffed animals. He spends all year searching garage sales for beanie babies and other toys to hand out. One year, he recalled, he actually dressed as Santa Claus and it made for a memorable year. His truck got stuck in the mud just over the border and he had to get out and push the vehicle, in his full Santa suit. Two older gentlemen witnessed his plight and called out “Use the reindeer, use the reindeer!” to him in Spanish. Once he was able to get his truck moving again, he stopped at a small shanty and asked the woman if she had children. She invited him inside and motioned to the blanket that was hanging to separate the room into two. A small boy pulled back the blanket and he stood in a state of shock as he looked up at Santa Claus standing in his house. It was a memory that has stayed with “Santa” all these years.
“It’s always important to make sure they always get something,” he asserted. Oftentimes, if the members of the Claus Crew run out of toys and food and candy, they will literally give the clothes off their backs. He recanted a story of the time his niece was handing out candy and noticed that one of the recipients was without a jacket, even though the weather practically demanded one. “She took off the jacket she was wearing and handed it over,” he said with pride. Another fond memory is of another young niece, then about age 3, who went along for her first trip. Before they embarked on their long trip down south, she found a large candy cane that she confiscated as her own. No amount of prodding or coaxing from her family members could separate her from this candy cane and she proudly walked around with it in her firm grasp. As they made their way through the tiny town, handing out gifts and candy to the locals, this little girl clung to her candy cane. When she realized that one child did not get a candy bag, she graciously offered her giant candy cane to her new friend and walked away. The Christmas Spirit is contagious.
The inhabitants of this small town anxiously await the arrival of the Claus Convoy. They run after the trucks in an effort to catch the candy bags that are tossed to them. The Claus Crew will go through several thousand candy bags in a day. Another favorite among the residents are hats and gloves for when the weather turns cold. And although the recipients have next to nothing, they look out for one another. When they receive a bag of food or a blanket, they’ll ask that something be left for their neighbor, as well. “These people will thank you like they won the lottery,” he said. “The small, dirty faces of the children as they look up at you; they just stay with you.”
The most difficult part of the trek is crossing the border into Mexico. The rules change frequently and they never know if they will all make it through customs without having to make a long detour to have their vehicles checked. One year, unbeknownst to the convoy, a customs agent told them that they needed a letter stating their business in Mexico before they could go through. Since they had no letter, they thought they would have to turn around and head back home. Instead, our St. Nick took a page from his mother and didn’t let the obstacles defeat him; he wrote his own letter and went through another custom agent’s line!
“You always get back more than you give,” he observed. True to point, he told a story about his sister and her inability to conceive a child. After many years of traveling to this small border town at Christmas, his mother heard about a family who had a new baby that they were unable to care for. The baby was suffering from malnutrition and the family was preparing for the child’s demise. Instead, the child was legally adopted by his sister and brought to the states to live.
The best part, according to this Santa, is the children, on both sides of the border. The kids who are receiving the candy and toys could not be any more grateful but it’s the American kids who come away with so much more. “It reinforces that Christmas is not about receiving material objects,” he opines. “The kids here certainly appreciate what they have so much more than they did (before they make the trip to Mexico). They see so many people who do without. It changes their perspective from what they want and what they really need.” It’s a family tradition these children have grown up with and they return home each Christmas just to be a part of the Claus Convoy.
As for our Santa, he waits anxiously for Christmas Eve to arrive so that he and his clan can set out on their adventure. He is as excited as, well, a child on Christmas. It’s what he waits for all year. “I love it,” he concedes, “and I love all the lives that have been changed for the better–on both sides of the border.”