Santa's Helpers Navigate COVID-19 Pandemic

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Each holiday season special assistants throughout the world don their red suits, lace up their black boots and take up a long-held mission to aid Santa Claus in spreading the Christmas spirit to children and adults alike. 

Sam Whitlow and Fred Roach are two of several men who have taken on the role of assisting Santa in Montgomery County.

“I like Christmas and I enjoy being around the kids. They make me laugh, ” Roach said, with more than a hint of fondness. “I like seeing their glowing faces and getting to hear the excitement in their voices when they tell me what they want Santa to bring them for Christmas. I think it’s important to believe in Santa. Believing in Santa helps instill a sense of wonder and imagination, that is something that I have always held onto myself. I think it is important for everyone, of all ages. The world is a much harder place if you don’t have something to believe in.” 

An Army veteran of the Vietnam War, Roach’s day-to-day wardrobe consists of primarily black clothing worn in homage to his POW and MIA brothers-and-sisters in arms. Yet, once a year he pulls out his red suit to take on the role of Santa Claus. Roach has been assisting Santa Claus since 2008, but helping the man-in-red is somewhat of a tradition in the Roach family. Both Roach and his cousin, Butch Roach, a resident of Florida, have taken up the call to assist Santa during the hectic holiday season. In his youth, Roach’s uncle, Jack Roach, took on the role of an elf, assisting Santa at Litchfield Moose Lodge.

“Helping Santa has run in the family for a long time,” Roach explained. “Uncle Jack started it, and me and my cousin Butch are keeping it up.” Last year, I had my chief elf (Dalton Durbin) with me, and that was really special to me because it reminded me of my Uncle Jack. I get a little carried away, but I think a lot of helping Santa. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in it.”

Roach isn’t the only one enlisted to help Santa navigate the hectic holiday season.

“I’m driven by the smiles on the kids’ faces,” said Whitlow, in explanation of why he is willing to take on such a staggering schedule of appearances each year.

Whitlow began helping Santa Claus over 29 years ago when he was asked to represent Santa Claus for the City of Hillsboro’s yearly festivities. Approximately ten years after putting on his red suit, Whitlow’s wife, Barb, found herself putting on a red dress to appear by his side. Like Mrs. Claus, she takes care of Whitlow and ensures that each of his tiny guests leave with their own memories of Christmas magic. 

In a normal year, the couple is extremely busy making appearances at homes, day cares, parties and festivals throughout the holiday season. Mrs. Whitlow estimates that they generally attend anywhere from 45 to 50 events between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year has been different. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing its spread and social distancing precautions tightening once-again, the couple has only made half-a-dozen or so appearances. Each of these appearances have required the Whitlows to navigate new territory and incorporate modifications to keep both themselves and their tiny charges safe.

“It is not very busy this year, but we have made a few home visits. I had special masks made for in-person visits and we do require them to wear a mask until it is time for photos. We arrange everyone, and once they are no longer facing Santa, and spaced a bit apart, they can briefly lower their masks for a photo. A lot are requesting that masks go back on so that they can get a COVID-19 picture,” Mrs. Whitlow explained. “Unlike typical years, our large events have all been distanced. The Litchfield Chamber of Commerce arranged for us to set up inside the storefront window of Cisler and Associates Real Estate, Inc., during their Christmas event, the weekend following Thanksgiving. Santa was on display to greet the kids and take photos through the window.”

The Litchfield Chamber of Commerce also hosted drive-thru events, each weekend of December  prior to Christmas. CNB Bank, Bank and Trust and Litchfield National Bank, all of Litchfield,allowed Santa and Mrs. Claus to use their drive-thru facilities to safely visit with local children.  

“Once we were in our position, inside of the bank, we could safely take off our masks and use the microphone at the drive-thru to speak with the children through the teller window,” Whitlow explained. “The kids were able to get out of their car and stand in front of the window to have their picture taken with Santa. I am sure they are not the best pictures, because the window creates a glare, but it was a semblance of normalcy in a year that has been full of uncertainty.”

The Whitlows were still able to hold Santa hours at their personal Santa House in Schram City this year, with some precautions in place. Safety precautions have been a key element in keeping both Santa and the community safe, while still maintaining much-loved holiday traditions.

“We are keeping a low profile this year and no one is sitting on Santa’s lap. I can’t see a lot of the people that I normally see. It makes me sad and hurts a little bit, but hopefully next year,” said Roach.  “My daughter (Melanie Tyszko) didn’t want me to do anything this year. She is really cautious and felt like it was too risky but I  just couldn’t say no.”

Normally, Roach’s holiday season is jam-packed with visits to local schools, retirement centers and large events. While the majority of his usual events were cancelled  because of the  ongoing pandemic, he has still made several appearances with modifications in place for safety.

“I thought Imagine Hillsboro’s Reverse Parade was pretty neat. It was inspiring to watch all the cars go by. I couldn’t be with the kids but I could get six feet from their vehicles to talk to them,” said Roach. “Toys for Tots is a program that means a lot to me and I was still able to visit them this year. I had to be separated from the families, but I got to wave and let them know that Santa’s is still here, even amid so much change.”

Roach held special Santa hours as part of Imagine Hillsboro’s Saturdays on the Square events in downtown Hillsboro. Organizers modified a Christmas scene with plexi glass to allow Santa to safely visit and take photos with families, and sent children off with individually wrapped cookies, made locally by Sweet Addictions in Hillsboro. He also assisted the TASC (The Autism Support Connection) group to hand out holiday packages and greet families during their drive-thru Christmas event. A new avenue has opened up as well. Roach spent much of his COVID-caused downtime this season assisting local photographer Ashley Christ with Christmas mini-shoots.

Thinking on their feet is nothing new to Santa’s assistants. Both Whitlow and Roach have had to learn to be ready for anything and to have a ready answer at hand to satisfy the most skeptical of believers.

Roach even attended and graduated from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, MI - the oldest Santa school in the United States. Founded by one of Santa’s original helpers, Charles Howard (the original Macy’s Santa), the school tutors Santa’s assistants from all over the country. Students learn about the history of Santa and the North Pole, how to answer difficult questions, elves and reindeer, as well as receiving hair and makeup lessons and sign language tutorials. However, nothing in the school’s curriculum prepared the special assistants for operating within a global pandemic.

“It is a risk for both Sam and I, physically, but we both felt that it was especially important for us to help Santa this year,” said Whitlow. “Everything is so topsy-turvy for the kids right now. School is not like it used to be, they have been kept out of activities and away from their friends and family members. Not only are they being put through the prolonged strain of isolation, they are witnessing an unprecedented level of discord surrounding the virus. We wanted to make sure that they still had Santa. We wanted at least this one aspect of Christmas to be as close to normal as possible for them.” 

Mrs. Whitlow was quick to remind that visits from Santa Claus bolster the spirit of Christmas in more than just the young.

“In a normal year, we visit a lot of different nursing homes and the residents’ response is just tremendous,” said Mrs. Whitlow with a reminiscent smile. “On one nursing home visit, several years back, we walked in and Santa greeted the residents with his big, bellowing ‘Ho, Ho, Ho.’ There was a little old lady present that had not spoken for over a year.  The lady turned, looked right at him and said ‘Santa.’ The nurse that was with us, and the lady’s family member that was with her, both started crying because it was the first time anyone had heard her speak in over a year. It is moments like that, that really enter our hearts and remind us why we do this. That’s the most important thing to us. Trying to bring a little cheer to the lives of the people around us.”

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