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Santa Claus is calling Tampa kids again this year

Julio Barrera is one of the volunteers who plays jolly old St. Nick on the phone for the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department. “We interact with them so closely, they honestly believe it’s Santa on the other side,” Barrera said.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Julio Barrera is one of the volunteers who plays jolly old St. Nick on the phone for the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department. “We interact with them so closely, they honestly believe it’s Santa on the other side,” Barrera said.

TAMPA — Santa Claus is real.

Just ask 5-year-old Luc LaChance, who spoke to jolly old St. Nick on the phone last year.

Santa called Luc at home. The big guy knew that Luc's teacher was named Miss Davis and that he really liked Power Rangers.

Luc was so stunned that he didn't speak at first. He looked at his parents, eyes wide and mouth agape. Then he whispered to them: "It's Santa! Santa is on the phone!"

If disappearing cookies aren't enough to convince your little one that Santa Claus is real, how about a phone call?

For the third consecutive year, the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department is arranging to have Santa make phone calls to children who are in preschool through second grade.

Parents fill out a detailed form, divulging personal information such as the names of a child's friends and siblings, his or her favorite sports, and the gifts the child has asked for. (The information is later shredded.)

The program is so popular that a group of volunteer Santas called more than 1,300 children last year, said Cathie Schanz, a Parks and Recreation manager who copied the program from Brevard County, where she previously worked.

"Some kids are so excited, they can't even talk," Schanz said. "The parents are laughing. The children are running around in circles. It just brings a lot of joy to the kids and is really just a great way to reach out to the community and spread a little holiday cheer."

The Parks and Recreation Department is searching for volunteer Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves to continue the tradition. The job of Mrs. Claus or an elf is to dial the phone number and tell the child that Santa is calling from the North Pole and he would like to speak with him or her. There's no formal training required and no need to disguise voices, although most do. There's just a cheat-sheet with answers to questions that the more skeptical children tend to ask, such as, "What did you get me last year?"

Santa is supposed to say that he is so busy giving so out so many toys that he doesn't keep track of everything, but it's on a list somewhere, said Julio Barrera, a team supervisor for the Parks and Recreation Department who has played a bilingual phone Santa both years.

The job, which does not pay, is fun and heartwarming, he said.

Last year, Barrera spoke to a girl who wanted a Dora the Explorer van, but her parents noted on the form that they couldn't afford gifts. With the mother's permission, Barrera went to Kmart and bought a $20 Dora van for the girl and mailed it to her.

The kids still believe. Santa hears it in their voices

Luc, who spoke to Santa last year, told classmates about the call. Miss Davis was confused by it, so she asked Luc's mother, Kitty LaChance, what he was talking about.

"It was so cute," said LaChance, who lives in Westchase, "and just great fun."

It's that reaction that moves Barrera to volunteer each year.

"We interact with them so closely, they honestly believe it's Santa on the other side," Barrera said. "It's the real child. I can't explain it. You just have to hear the kids. It's like the best thing in the world."

Calling all Santas

• The city of Tampa Parks and Recreation Department is looking for volunteers to play Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves. You do not need to look like them. Call Cathie Schanz at (813) 274-7731, or e-mail her at cathie.schanz@tampagov.net.

• To have Santa call your child, go to www.tampagov.net, click on "A Phone Call From Santa" and fill out the form there. Phone calls are made from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 8, 9 and 10.

The deadline to turn in completed forms is Monday.

Santa Claus is calling Tampa kids again this year 12/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 12:12am]
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