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VOL. 126 | NO. 248 | Wednesday, December 21, 2011

‘Santa Claus’ Makes 100th Visit to Kids at St. Jude

By Aisling Maki

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The children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis celebrated Christmas in the lobby of the Chili’s Care Center Monday, Dec. 19, with crafts, holiday treats and a special visit from Old St. Nick.


(Photo: Courtesy of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital)

It was the 100th visit to St. Jude for longtime volunteer Joe Farris, otherwise known as “The Real Santa Claus.”

To mark Farris’ historic visit, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. proclaimed Monday, Dec. 19, 2011, as Joe Farris Day in Memphis.

It all began on Feb. 4, 1962 – St. Jude’s opening day – when friend Danny Thomas challenged Farris to find a creative way to bring joy to the hearts of the hospital’s child patients.

“And I had brought in some checks and money to help with the building fund, and Danny Thomas said, ‘Little brother, is there anyway you can make these children – the patients at the hospital – happy besides just bringing them a present? That don’t cheer them up because they don’t realize what the money’s for.’”

Farris still collects donations from friends and family and delivers checks – including the one for $5,600 he presented Monday to Richard Shadyac Jr., CEO of St. Jude fundraising arm ALSAC.

But for the past 50 years, Farris has traveled from his home in Georgia twice each year – in July and December – to Memphis to spread Christmas cheer to the pediatric patients at St. Jude, which provides treatment to children afflicted by cancer or other catastrophic illnesses, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

“July is for the kids who may not make it to December, or who won’t be here in December because all kids are not here the entire year,” said event organizer Alexis Annaratone of ALSAC. “The December event, for some families, is the only time they get to see Santa. It’s really special for them and it gives the parents that moment with their child.”

Brittany Brown of Lafayette, La., said Monday’s event was the only opportunity this year for her 7-year-old daughter, Ella, who underwent a bone marrow transplant in October, to visit with Santa Claus.

Ella and her toddler sister have been residents of Target House since September, but Ella’s delicate immune system often prevents her from participating in the activities offered at the facility.

“She loves Christmas; she’s like me,” Brown said Monday, as her daughters sat at a nearby crafts table assembling and decorating foam gingerbread houses. “She’s not supposed to be around a lot of people, but since we’re here for appointments, we’re able to be here for this and she’s really excited.”

Brown’s family will travel to Memphis for Christmas to visit the girls, and although it’s difficult to be away from home for Christmas, she said the staff and volunteers at St. Jude give it their all to help make families feel at home in Memphis.

“When you find out you’re going to be here for the holidays, it’s really difficult because it’s not home, but they’ve done everything to make it home,” Brown said. “It’s a wonderful place. I was dreading the holidays here, but I actually wouldn’t trade it right now. We’re with so many people who are going through all of the same things, so it’s a really great place to be. They do everything in their power to make it feel like home for you. During Christmas, there’s something to do everyday – always some type of activity for the kids and even for the parents, to get us out and about.”

As for Farris, whose age remains a mystery even to the staff at St. Jude, he said the journey to Memphis is worth it if it can bring a smile to the face of a single child.

“It just makes my heart melt when those little kids grab me and hug my neck and say, ‘I love you, Santa; I love you so much. Thank you for my gifts and thank you for coming,’” Farris said. “I just keep saying I have to come back for my next trip.”

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