Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
They’ve made their lists, and he’s checking them twice. Santa’s Forest Park helper, Willie Freeman, looks over applications for “Calls from Santa.”
When Santa can't drop in on Forest Park before Christmas, he picks up the phone and calls local children to chat about their holiday list, school, pets and family.
The program, operated through the Parks and Recreation Department, started at least 18 years ago. Recreation Supervisor Willie Freeman handles the call requests, made by applications submitted through November, and coordinates them for Santa. Freeman said the department typically gets 20-40 applications every year.
"This is important to do for the kids," said Freeman. "Hearing from Santa can inspire them. Some kids may not get very much for Christmas, but getting that call is a gift in itself."
The applications are not processed as a wish list. Parents are instructed to include on the application only what they expect the children to receive for Christmas. All applicants will get a call, either Tuesday or Thursday evening, he said.
"It's mostly for younger children, from about 2 years up to about 10 or so, but we've gotten applications from teenagers," said Freeman. "We don't question it. If they want a call from Santa, they get it."
This year, about 20 children, age 3-11, have signed up to hear from St. Nick.
Santa used to visit Forest Park every year, arriving in a grand parade after Thanksgiving. Children lined up to have their photos taken with the jolly old elf. But, like everyone else these days, Santa has had to downsize, and limit the number of pre-Christmas visits he makes. Instead of getting to each child individually, Santa drops in and makes phone calls to the kids who really want to talk to him.
"The kids know he is in Forest Park," said Freeman. "They can see the Caller ID says 'Forest Park,' and they ask. Kids are smart. Santa tells them that he is, indeed, in Forest Park."
Freeman, 56, seems an unlikely choice as Santa's helper. He served his country in the U.S. Army, from 1973, until 1993. Fourteen of those years were spent in the 82nd Airborne Division. Freeman joined the military at the tail end of the Vietnam War and fought in the first Gulf War.
When he retired to Forest Park, he started taking classes at Clayton State University under the GI Bill. In complete opposition to 20 years of regimented discipline, Freeman was drifting.
"I was hustling pool and going to school," he said. "That was it."
A newspaper article peaked his interest.
"I saw where Forest Park was looking for a recreation leader, part-time, from 5 to 9," said Freeman. "I thought that would be a good gig. I shot pool until about 4 a.m., and I figured I could go on to work from there."
Turns out the job started at 5 p.m., but by that time, Freeman was hooked.
"Forest Park really saved my life," he said. "This was a place of rebirth for me after seeing so much violence."
The part-time position turned full-time and Freeman's responsibilities grew. But from the beginning, Freeman took on the mantle of making sure the Santa calls were made every December.
"The kids get so excited," he said. "You can hear them say, 'Mama, it's Santa.' They'll tell Santa that they saw him in a parade or had their picture taken with him at the mall."
Santa asks about their pets, their siblings, how they are doing in school. Sometimes, parents ask Santa to address a specific concern to get the child's attention.
"Santa will sometimes remind the child to feed his pet or to not do something at school again that they've been in trouble for," said Freeman. "The calls are designed to be positive for the child, a reminder to behave and follow the rules."
While the primary focus of the call for the child is to tell Santa what he or she wants for Christmas, Freeman said some kids share other information.
"We've had some good calls over the years," he said. "Kids have inspired me with their comments about their relatives. They will tell Santa about gifts they are giving their grandma or their concerns about other family members getting what they want for Christmas. They also tell Santa they are leaving out milk and cookies for him."