By Shannon Eblen
Five thousand dollars-worth of Hatchimals, Tonka Trucks, basketballs, dolls and toys stretched across the room where young men in green shirts and elf hats worked just a few mornings before Christmas.
But this wasn’t Santa’s workshop. It was the lobby of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local 14’s union hall. The elves were a few of the union’s apprentices who were loading boxes and bags into pickup trucks bound for St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia.
Toys for hospitalized children is a Christmas tradition for the union and part of its effort to give back to the community. “You can see the excitement in the kids’ faces. It’s such a joy,” said Business Manager Stephen Pettit. “Christmas is a time for giving.”
The first year Local 14 organized a toy drive, they took the gifts to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and were amazed by the number of other donations they witnessed being delivered. “They had tractor trailers pulling up with gifts and toys,” said Business Agent Robert Cellucci. “The next year, we redirected our donations to St. Christopher’s where we felt our gifts could make more of a difference.”
Prior to Christmas, members bring in gifts or cash donations that are then pooled and used to buy presents for children of all ages. Shopping day is fun, Cellucci said, but a challenge. It involves a six-to-seven-hour marathon where shoppers are tasked with making sure that they have a variety of gifts and stay within budget.
Increasingly, tight hospital security keeps them from visiting the children or giving them gifts directly, but sometimes they see children coming and going from the hospital as they are unloading.
“They see the presents coming and they light up,” Cellucci said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Tom Beese donned the union’s Santa Clause costume, complete with beard, while Steve Rickert dressed as Bumble, the villain-turned-hero Abominable Snowman from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
The costumes, though sweltering, were also a golden ticket – a chance for Beese and Rickert to interact with some of the patients at the hospital. They stood in the main lobby as children ran up to greet them and parents took photos on their cell phones.
“Watching the kids interact with Bumble and Santa is the best part of the day,” Pettit said. “We’ve had several Santas over the years and they’ve all been very convincing. Our apprentices take pride in being Santa.”
Of course, not everyone was totally convinced. “One kid looked at me, he was like, ‘You’re fake,’” Beese said laughing.
The members also got to go downstairs to the hospital “store,” a room where the hospital sets out donated gifts. On Friday and Saturday before Christmas, parents will be allowed to come down and pick a few presents for their children.
“It was nice that the parents get to come and select the gifts so it’s more personal,” said Ryan Maldonado. “I like that.”
Even if a family has the means, Cellucci said, if their child is sick and in the hospital, they don’t have time to worry about buying gifts. And helping those families is what brings the union back to St. Christopher’s every year.
The apprentices, participating in the delivery for the first time, agreed that they would like to do it again. “They’re going through a hard time,” Beese said of the children at the hospital. “It’s nice to put a smile on their faces.”