When what to their wondering eyes did appear, but a Santa in a boat to deliver Christmas cheer!
That’s right — every holiday season, Old Saint Nick visits the children of Lake Sawyer, handing out candy canes and gifts while normally collecting modest food and money donations for the Black Diamond Community Center.
This has been a tradition since 1972, when Black Diamond volunteers first convinced Santa to board a floating dock pulled by watercraft.
Now the event is organized by the Lake Sawyer Community Club, and Santa gets to actually ride inside the boat.
But this year was different — not because of the coronavirus (though Santa and his helpers did have to socially distance this time around), but due to the fact Santa helped raise nearly $50,000 for the local community center.
“I was just blown away,” said Lake Sawyer Community Club Board President Lauren Landis. “I still am — I can’t believe it.”
This event was started 38 years ago by Ross Casida, who was the first local resident to don the beard and bright red suit.
“We’ve done this in all kinds of weather,” he told a local newspaper on the 10th anniversary of him playing the role as Santa. “About 30 minutes before we start, sometimes I’ve wondered why I’m doing it. But once I get going I really enjoy it. The kids get such a big kick out of it.”
Casida eventually retired, but luckily, another member of the Black Diamond community stepped up to take over — and then another, and another, and another.
“When I talk to people who have been on the lake longer than me… [they say] ‘I’ve put in my time for Santa boat — I’ve been there before, same as you,’” Landis said. “A lot of people have volunteered for Santa boat.”
One of those people has been Sheila Hoefig and her family, including her kids Tara and Jonathan.
“We wanted to keep the tradition going,” said Hoefig, who moved to the lake in 2007. She added that this was a great opportunity for her kids to learn about community service. “We do it to support our children, and we want our kids to grow up knowing what community service is, and participate.”
When it first started, Santa just stopped at the docks of Lake Sawyer houses to give kids candy. Over the years, though, the event got more intricate, to the point where parents would start dropping off gifts at the community club for Santa to “give” to the children as he went by.
“It’s one of the coolest Santa experiences you can have anywhere,” Landis said.
And most recently, the Lake Sawyer Community Club started asking for donations to go to the Black Diamond Community Center; it began with food donations (enough to sometimes fill an entire car, Hoefig said), but that eventually petered out as monetary donations started coming in.
Last year, around $6,000 was donated to the community center — that was a new record for the event, which of course was shattered this year.
Part of the reason why Santa was able to raise so much money was due to two anonymous donations — one that would match up to $10,000 what the community raised, and another that would match 100 percent of what the community raised. This was in addition to the community club’s annual $2,500 match.
Getting those match donations was “like a challenge to the residents,” Landis said. “And I’m proud to say the community answered [their] call… It really inspired people.”
The donation was extra special because the Black Diamond Community Center was unable to host its two biggest fundraisers due to the coronavirus, with an estimated net loss of around $65,000, said Director Cheryl Hanson.
“That was a big loss to us,” Hanson said in an email interview. “But with help from private donations… city money and local service organizations, we made it through 2020 and will make it through 2021.”