December, with all its trappings of holiday tradition and festive functions, is often referred to as "The Season of Giving," and for many people, it is gifts that most come to mind. But there are other gifts some bestow, not easily contained by a pretty ribbon or bow, but invaluable in terms of community commitment, time, energy and care imparted to ensure that all experience the customary warmth and good will to complement the season.
On the evening of December 23, well prior to the appointments of a certain St. Nick, an equally jolly band of benefactors gathered at the local fire station, and while these particular merry makers may be too modest (or honest) to consider themselves saintly, there is no disputing their roles as Santa Clause on Sanibel Island.
For almost 40 years now, members of the local Kiwanis Club have gone through the motions of collecting donated gift items which are delivered to people of all ages just prior to Christmas.
Posing in flamingo posture, the Kiwanis Club Santas of Santa Run: (left to right) Fred Bondurant, Allan Marcus, George Campean, Jonathan Tongyai and Aaron 'The Youngest Local Kiwanian' Pruss.
(Photo by Bill Schiller)
That initiative involves Commanding Coordinators in the likes of Kiwanian Dick Muench and Tom Louwers of Friends Who Care, several teams of volunteers serving as "support elves" and, of course, Santa Clause, which in this case, was apportioned by five different men attired in full santa regalia.
Of those assembled, some are retired while others have full time careers in real estate, insurance, marketing or some other profession. They have different ages and hail from diverse origins that include Switzerland and Romania. What ties all in this initiative, beyond their love for Sanibel, is a philosophy for serving others so fundamental to all involved with Kiwanis.
As President Pete Bender explains, when looking among the volunteers at any charitable event that takes place here, throughout the year, members of Kiwanis can be found. As for this traditional "Santa Run" - it was begun almost forty years ago after Dick Muench relocated from New York to Sanibel.
Having long participated in a similar neighborhood event at his former home, he determined to bring Santa to Sanibel too, and he does, year after year. Of course, dressing as Santa in New York's winter may be a tad more cozy and comfortable than the same in Sanibel (with this year's December temps averaging around 80 degrees). While those in heavy attire could be observed drinking water, they wouldn't be heard complaining. In fact, most maintained a sense of humor.
When Realtor Fred Bondurant was asked how he was drafted into playing Santa, he said, "They asked for volunteers and I wasn't quick enough to lower my hand."
Allan Marcus, another Santa, answered similarly, "When they said they needed volunteers; I was the last one to get out of the room."
As much as they kid, both Bondurant and Marcus have played this role before and there must be something that keeps them coming back. For Bondurant, there is certain joy in seeing the reactions from children when he shows up with a gift. Those encounters, he says, have ranged "from being afraid to being overjoyed."
Marcus, who confesses to be a "sucker with a soft spot" shares a story about a boy he met one year who was confined to a wheel chair and so debilitated as to be unable to move from the neck down. The smile in that boy's eyes when he arrived with a gift is something Marcus says he will never, ever forget.
Jonathan Tongyai recalls a certain Christmas when he was a child on Sanibel, and that year, the Santa that arrived at his home was none other than Dick Muench. Tongyai says he knows how special the "Santa Run" is to those on the receiving end. To be sure, it isn't just kids who receive packages. Kiwanis delivers to anyone of any age, or financial situation. While some may be needy children, there are yet others who have been indicated as wanting (or needing) their brand of cheer. Tongyai remembers one year when a man on the island had recently lost a cherished friend in the form of a golden retriever. Tongyai arrived that year with a gift of a small puppy. Before he left, both he and the man that received the puppy were in tears.
There were no red-nosed reindeer, but several trucks and vans to carry the gift packages to more than a 100 locations throughout Sanibel. With a few Ho, Ho, Ho's, they drove out of sight, wishing Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.