Volunteers bring Santa to life for evening of calls to kids

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PITTSFIELD — "Ho-ho-ho, this is Santa calling from the North Pole," said Cal Joppru in a deep, joyful Santa Claus voice. "Can I speak to Kay Kay?"

Joppru, a Hinsdale resident, is a volunteer for the North Pole Calling Program, a seasonal event conducted by the Pittsfield Department of Community Development Recreation Program.

The program's "Santas," a group of about five volunteers, called children from the department's offices in City Hall on Wednesday evening from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The calls continued Thursday evening, when volunteers from the local Knights of Columbus participate each year.

Becky Manship, the recreation and activities coordinator who leads the program, said the city has continued the tradition annually for nearly 75 years, and interest in the program among parents has continued to grow.

This year, 139 children were surprised with a phone call from Santa, compared to 125 children last year, Manship said.

Children in kindergarten through second grade were sent home with a form in late November for parents to sign up for Santa to call their children. New this year are digital forms available on the city of Pittsfield's website, making it more convenient for parents to download, fill out and email in.

To help the volunteers with the phone calls, questions on the sign-up sheet include the child's name, nickname, gender, age, grade in school and what school they attend. Santa can also mention the names of their siblings, parents, teachers, pets and their family's "Elf on the Shelf."

Longtime volunteer Bill Knowles, wearing a red Santa hat, red suit and long white beard, said this information is crucial to convince the children that he really is Santa Claus.

"If they're skeptical, lay into the facts," Knowles said. "If you know their school, and if you know their dog's name, then you build trust."

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Sometimes the call will be to a family with multiple children, Knowles said, and for this he has a system.

"I like to talk to the older kids first," he said. "Because if you're able to convince them, then they're going to build excitement with the younger kids. You hear them say, `It's Santa, it's Santa!'"

Knowles, a Dalton resident, has reprised his role in the North Pole Calling Program each year for about eight years.

"It's rewarding; it's fun," he said with a smile. "That's why I do it."

Other key details on the sign-up sheet include if the child has seen Santa yet this year, as well as what gifts the child is asking Santa for and what the child could expect to receive — the goal being to try to discourage any extraordinary expectations.

Some popular toys and games children are asking for this year are L.O.L. dolls, Hatchimals, Pokemon and Fortnite, an online video game, according to Manship.

Along with discussing Christmas presents, volunteers like Joppru, Knowles and Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn encourage the children to listen to their parents, continue to do well in school and be nice to their siblings.

Once it's time to transition to another call, Knowles knows just what to say.

"Well, listen, I've got to get going," Knowles tells 10-year-old Gabby. "Dancer and Prancer are over there eating my couch — Hey, get off of there! — I've got to get going. Apparently, they're hungry."


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