A bright red sleigh and eight tiny reindeer will take to the skies late Christmas Eve, but Santa took a different route slightly ahead of schedule to visit families at Children's Hospital Central California.
With red lights flashing and sirens blaring, a procession of emergency vehicles turned on to the Hospital's drive. “They’re here!” exclaimed a volunteer as patients and their families began filing out the double doors at the front of the Hospital, braving the December chill.
Santa Claus usually relies on his reindeer to lead the way, but this time six rows of side-by-side motorcycle officers drove up to the circular drive, followed by a big red engine carrying the jolly old elf himself. The impressive motorcade also included two additional fire trucks, nearly two dozen other fire units and several California Highway Patrol cars. “It’s the largest group we’ve had in three or four years,” said Mary Beth Jones, supervisor, Child Life Services at Children’s.
Santa has been coming to Children's Hospital for more than 25 years. This year he was joined by friends from the California Department of Forestry & Fire Prevention, California Highway Patrol, Clovis Fire Department, Fresno County Fire Department, Fresno Fire Department, Fresno Police Department, Madera County Explorers and the Madera County Fire Department.
Smokey Bear and Sparky the Dog disembarked from the fire truck parked behind Santa’s “sleigh.” Smokey gave real bear hugs to anyone within range of his furry brown arms. Sparky wore a helmet similar to the ones worn by other firefighters from his department. However their helmets were soiled and scuffed as proof of their heroics away from the Hospital.
The Hospital's rotunda overflowed with patients, parents, friends and family who had come to give the police officers and firefighters a hero’s welcome. The uniformed men assembled in the main lobby and prepared to sing.
Captain Michael Gill of the Fresno Fire Department greeted all who had gathered, and encouraged them to join in singing the familiar tunes. “The reason we want you to sing along with us is because if you’re singing you can’t hear us,” he said with a grin. The men began with “Jingle Bells.” When they forgot the lyrics near the end of the first verse, the room filled with laughter. Laughter would follow them from that moment on – laughter and a few happy tears. A mother with swollen red eyes expressed her gratitude, overwhelmed that firefighters and police officers would take time out of their schedules to spend time with her child. “It brings hope. It brings happiness,” she said with a teary smile.
“It’s a good time of the year for us. With the tragedies we see, it feels good to bring a smile to a child’s face,” said Gill.
Several Target employees carrying bags colored Christmas red and snowball white also joined the festivities. They wore shirts printed with the words: Real passion, Real commitment, Real difference.
Members of the police and fire departments also carried Target shopping bags. They were filled with Target’s generous gift of toy cars and stuffed animals for our patients.
After assembling in the rotunda to sing, the members of the police and fire departments fanned out across the Hospital visiting patients in their rooms. Would eight big men with firefighter uniforms and tall yellow helmets frighten the small child in a room they entered? Not these heroes! They surrounded the hospital bed while the patient’s mother waved them in closer and took a picture.
The day was filled with picture taking. Walking with a cane didn’t stop one grandfather from getting down on one knee with a camera to frame the perfect shot of his grandchildren with members of the Clovis Fire Department. Even officers and firefighters pulled out their cell phone cameras for photos with the children.
“Oh, wow!” exclaimed a firefighter upon entering a girl’s room draped with red and green streamers. “Your room is decorated really nice.”
A Child Life specialist knocked on another patient’s door and said, “Virginia, would you like a visit from Santa Claus and some police officers?”
Virginia nodded with an excited twinkle in her eye. Over 100 years ago, an 8-year-old named Virginia wrote a letter to the editor of “The New York Sun” and asked, “Is there a Santa Claus?”
Francis Pharcellus Church responded with an editorial which said in part, “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”
That special light burns brightly at Children's Hospital Central California. We heartily thank our firefighters and police officers for fanning that flame while they were here. “Their uniforms are magic,” said a nurse.
In the hustle and bustle of the crowded rotunda, a bystander could not identify which of the men in those magical uniforms spoke candidly about his feelings. But a voice in the group said, “These kids are the real heroes.”