In collaboration with Paula Ruttle
Christmas morning was always a wonderful experience – brightly wrapped gifts, mum in pyjamas, smiling as she cupped her cuppa, the dog wagging her tail excitedly. Sometimes there was snow, sometimes rain, sometimes it was windy and grey. But there was always the warmth of being home with loved ones – siblings, pets, parents, aunts and uncles, nans and grandads, friends and neighbours. For some children and their families, though, this experience is impossible.
If you’ve ever been or are caring for a sickly child, you know you’d do anything to give that loved one just one more happy moment, just one more cuddle, just one more ‘I love you’. Months blend into night and day, hours and minutes fade into seasons. You shuffle your life around taking that child to and from appointments, surgeries at hospital, whilst juggling your family and work responsibilities. It is a struggle made even harder if that child is confined to hospital over the holidays. It’s so difficult to bring that Christmas sparkle to families and children outside the warmth of their own homes.
You field questions, like “Will Santa know where to find me?” “There’s no fireplace at the hospital, how will he come?” and, “Do you think Santa remembers me?”
Queue Connected Santa. For more than a decade, we’ve been working with Santa, the elves, and Cisco technology. Using Webex, Santa has been able to visit children and their families in hospitals across Ireland, the United Kingdom, and around the globe. I have run this program in the UK with Joanne Bugg for eight years. Paula, alongside Mairead Craven, have run the program in Ireland for seven of the 13 years it’s been active.
Connected Santa has undergone a few transformations since its inception, but none as prolific as when we went completely virtual. This year, we managed to bring Santa to hospitals across Ireland and the UK over a few days, including hospitals in Mayo, Cork, Galway, Dublin, Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol, Derby, York, and many others. Thanks to our volunteers, children had gifts delivered to their beds. The elves (pre-pandemic Cisco volunteers, post-pandemic nurses and hospital staff) at each of our connected hospitals worked tirelessly to decorate rooms, wrap a mountain of donated gifts, test the technology, and make sure that when Santa called over Webex, the children could answer from a tablet or another video device.
Their bright little faces when they understand that Santa is there with them, is one of the most heart-warming moments. We’ve just wrapped up Connected Santa for the season. It was amazing – Santa got to spend real quality time with each child. One little girl who was low of vision, couldn’t see Santa, but she could hear him. Together, on her maracas and his sleighbells, they played Jingle Bells to the delight of her family and the elves nearby. She laughed. Together, they brought the joy of the season to life.
What makes this program so incredible is the amount of time and effort everyone involved puts in. We start planning around July, contacting each hospital, setting up GoFundMe pages for Ireland, and gift lists for the UK. A week or so before, we get Santa’s grotto prepped for him, with a comfy chair, a fireplace, a tree, and some presents. Since going virtual, we are completely reliant on hospital staff to make Santa’s adventure come to life. Part of the magic is Santa knowing a bit about the child. Before each interaction, the staff elves send a few secret key messages to the Grotto via Webex. When Santa greets each child, he knows their name, age, and what they’d like for Christmas this year. It really makes the adventure magical.
Some of the exchanges with Santa and the children at Edinburgh’s Children Hospital Charity:
“I wish I could climb into the screen and be with Santa and do that all again!”
“How did Santa know about my sister’s name!?”
“Santa, I love your Christmas tree!”
While it doesn’t always get easier, it does help to have people out there who really want to be there for you and your families. I hope you have many special moments with your loved ones over this Christmas season and that your New Year is full of cheer.