Spirit of the Season
by Anthony Flott
editor, UNO Alum
Orien Hodges got the call on a Thursday. A terminally ill 10-month-old boy, only six pounds and weakening rapidly, was given mere days to live. Four other brothers and sisters were at home. Christmas was near, but the family was strapped. "They had absolutely nothing under their Christmas tree at all," Hodges recalls.
Within minutes, Hodges was on the phone placing calls throughout his hometown of Walnut, Iowa, and asking for help. On Sunday, ministers in Walnut churches passed the request on to their congregations. "We needed things, whether it be baked goods, canned goods, clothes or toys," says Hodges. By mid-afternoon that same day, remembers Hodges, "we were just inundated with things to take to this family. We had to have four or five gals wrapping packages. There was more than we could take to this family. They had a good Christmas."
One presented by none other than Santa Claus himself, who came whirring into the family's drive that day riding atop a fire truck.
Actually, it was Hodges. And it wasn't the first time he had brought Christmas to a child.
A 1967 UNO graduate, the 59-year-old Hodges regularly dons red suit and white beard to portray Santa Claus for terminally and seriously ill children and children in crisis. He's done so since 1998 through his Santa's Children Christmas Village, visiting around 7,500 children in that time, mostly in Iowa and Nebraska, but in surrounding states, too. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley recently praised Hodges in the Congressional Record while addressing a "Supporting Children in Crisis" session.
"We all want to try and give back at some point and time," Hodges says. "This is definitely my way of giving back to society, if you will. I think there's more of this type of thing that needs to be done by more people. You can work your life away and become a millionaire and everything else, but to be able to touch a child's life in some form and give them a little happiness is pretty good."
Christmas is something of a way of life for Hodges. An entrepreneur who has started several of his own businesses, his full-time gig is owner of Country Classics, touted as Iowa's largest year round Christmas store. The store, which he's owned for 16 years, operates in downtown Walnut, Iowa's "antique city" (46 miles east of Omaha).
Ten years ago, while watching a morning television program, Hodges saw a feature on Bill Dieterle. Based in Cleveland, Dieterle had long been playing Santa for terminally ill children, visiting about 3,500 dying children and their families each year. He also began Santa's Hide-A-Way Hollow, a 96-acre facility in Middlefield Township, Ohio, where he's built a replica of the North Pole.
"This needs to be done in more than one place," Hodges remembers thinking after seeing the piece. A couple of years later he saw another program featuring Dieterle and now jumped into action, pursuing a similar effort, in the summer of 1997. Hodges visited Dieterle in Cleveland and took note of his operations. He also took six courses in fund-raising management and received a certificate in fund-raising management from UNO. He earned 501c3 status as a nonprofit company, incorporating Santa's Children Christmas Village in May 1999. An eight-member board of directors was established and partners pursued to help offset some of the costs—most of which to that point had come out of his personal pocket.
There's a payoff, though—the moment a child sees Hodges stroll through the door wearing his $1,400 red suit (extra padding required) and accompanied by his helper elves. "One thing you have to remember is they're children, and if a child is seriously or terminally ill, you can't always tell that," Hodges says. "We know because we find out before we go in. But that child reacts very normally to Santa Claus. He or she is happy, their eyes bug out and they just have a great time. They grab a hold of your leg and hold onto your arm."
The visits take place in homes and elsewhere, often with Hodges arriving astride not a red sleigh but a red fire truck. To date, Hodges has turned in all the Santa performances, hundreds of times. Various volunteers have donned elf-wear, including 11 from last year's graduating class at Oakland High School.
Visits have been made to Omaha's Children's Hospital, the UNMC transplant center, the Ronald McDonald House, Open Door Mission and Lydia House and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Gifts and funds for the children now come from individuals and more than 40 companies who contribute a percentage of sales on merchandise. The latter includes Pipka and Prizm, Inc., who early on dedicated a portion of the sales from each "The Carpenter Santa" collectible, opening with a $25,000 contribution. Other sponsors include American Gramaphone (Chip Davis is national spokesman), Iowa Family Crafters and others.
Percentages of some sales in Hodges' own Country Classics store also are contributed. Monies are distributed to other charities, including the Child Saving Institute, Iowa's Heart Connection Children's Cancer Programs, Red Cross in New York and Give Kids the World in Florida.
"The mission is to make a lot more kids happy if we possibly can through helping other charities," Hodges says. "That's the big key to everything we're doing."
Now Hodges is expanding his organization's focus from children to K.I.D.S. That's short for Kids in Distressed Situations, a New York-based charity of leading retailers, manufacturers and licensors of children's products committed to helping children in need. Founded in 1985, K.I.D.S. encourages and facilitates donations of new apparel, shoes, toys, juvenile products and other items that benefit children who are ill, living in poverty or are the victims of natural disasters. These products are distributed directly though other charities. In the nearly 20 years since its founding it has donated more than $400 million worth of new merchandise to children in need, $35 million to two to four million children annually in the past decade.
Santa's Children Christmas Village is joining the K.I.D.S. family. The plan is for Hodge's group to work with fire departments in Iowa and Nebraska to get these products into the hands of the children in need within each of their communities. The goal is to raise $100,000 through the departments and sponsorships. Since K.I.D.S. returns funds at a minimum of a 10-to-1 ratio, that would bring $1 million in new merchandise to be distributed through the participating fire departments and, at times, Santa. The funds are needed to pay K.I.D.S. for freight from manufacturers and retailers to Santa's Village and from there to the fire departments. Funds will come from a $10 request from each firefighter, who in turn will ask local individuals and organizations to match their donations. In Omaha, radio station KEFM (96.1) will hold a toy and clothing drive for Hodges' work.
Hodges isn't done dreaming, either. He also plans for a Santa Village, "a magical place where children and their families can visit and meet Santa and experience Christmas anytime of the year." Plans call for a North Pole theme with a Claus home, a Santa's Visitors Center, a reindeer barn, the North Pole Express Depot, Santa's Rooming House and an Elves' Trade School. Sleigh rides will be offered during snowy times and train rides in other seasons.
"I have full vision of this going on for as long as I can do it and into the future from there," Hodges says. "We'll find someone else interested in doing Santa's Village at that time and then we'll continue."
Anthony Flott is editor of The Alum, the magazine of the UNO Alumni Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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