Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Being Santa at a Childrens' Hospice is the best and worst job ever

A Santa Claus volunteer leans in for a girl who just received a candy cane at a hospice care center. John Scheuch, Santa-America's executive director, says these kids sometimes ask difficult questions.

"I visited a 6-year-old who asked Santa, 'What is it going to be like when I die?' After a gulp and a deep breath I said, 'I don't really know, but I do know you will not be hurting or in pain anymore and that can only be more pleasant.' Then we spoke of other things."

By Christmas Day, a career Santa can name the top 10 toys for girls and boys in a heartbeat. He has sat smiling patiently, swathed in red velvet on his gilded throne, and listened to countless children whisper their innermost desires.A volunteer hospice Santa hears a different sort of wish list. Sometimes, the children he visits don't want to talk. Others ask questions no one feels brave enough to answer.

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The non-profit national volunteer service organization known as Santa-America has 175 hospice-trained Santas, scattered over more than 40 states, who visit terminally ill children or youngsters who are grieving because of the loss or impending loss of a parent.

The Santas are an elite and bearded group from all backgrounds: Some are retired, others work at jobs that range from salesmen to psychologists. Before visiting a home or hospital, they memorize names of family members and pets; they undergo a rigorous background check and receive ongoing instruction in grief, bereavement, symptom management and spirituality.

"First and foremost, you have to remember that these are children, and you have to go in treating them like children," says John Scheuch, Santa-America's executive director. "I have visited babies who are only weeks old, and, on Christmas morning, it's clear that some won't survive.

There are others who are realizing where they are and what is going to happen and they are wrestling with that.

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