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In late July, patients of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital lined up in the hallways of the Danny Thomas Research Center, all the way past the cafeteria.
Why? To see Santa Claus, of course.
Taking a hiatus from his summer vacation, “Santa Claus” came to St. Jude on July 26 to hand out presents to all the patients.
It might sound odd, Santa visiting in the middle of summer, but at St. Jude “Santa” has been visiting the hospital in July AND December since the hospital first opened its doors.
Santa is Joe Farris, a long-time volunteer for St. Jude. Farris has been making his way from Georgia to Memphis, Tennessee, for more than 40 years. And each time, he and his ALSAC Teen Chapter bring thousands of toys with them and always make sure that every child in the hospital—even siblings of patients—gets a little something from his bag of goodies.
“It takes a lot of time to get up 2,000 gifts twice a year,” Farris said. “And if it wasn’t for the teenagers, I couldn’t do it.”
Farris has been the main force behind the teenagers ever since he and some friends saw Danny Thomas perform in Atlanta. After the show, Thomas walked around to the tables in the club, asking for support for St. Jude. “When he asked me if I could help him, I was so young then I didn’t even realize what fund raising was,” Farris said. “I didn’t know anything about research or any of those different diseases.” But when Thomas said leukemia was one of the diseases St. Jude would study, that sparked an interest in Farris’ heart.
The valedictorian of his high school, and a good friend of his, had died of leukemia. “It just about killed me when that young girl died of leukemia,” Farris said. So he heeded Thomas’ call and in 1957, he became a fund raiser for St. Jude.
In July of 1962, five months after the hospital opened, Farris, who was teaching eighth through 12th grade, pulled together a volunteer group of teens dubbed the ALSAC Teen Chapter and came to St. Jude. Farris remembers one of the patients looking up at him dressed as Santa Claus and asking, “Santa Claus, why are you coming here in July?”
“Because you are so special,” Farris told her, “Santa Claus makes two visits to St. Jude instead of just one.”
After that July, the Santa Claus visits snowballed. Farris and company returned in December, during the actual holiday season. “And it was even more popular then,” Farris said.
“Joe and his group of teens have been an inspiration,” said Marilyn Elledge, Senior Vice President of Donor Programs for ALSAC, the hospital’s fund-raising arm. “His loyalty to the children of St. Jude has been unwavering, from before the hospital opened to today.”
Farris and his teens have received numerous accolades for their dedication to children stricken with deadly childhood diseases. Farris himself has been named the Military Citizen of the Year in his home state of Georgia. But personal “pats-on-the-back” are not what gives Farris joy.
“It is all worthwhile when they hug my neck and tell me they love me,” Farris said. “I just love those kids so much. I don’t know how those kids are so brave.”
Times have changed since that first July trip. “I never saw the same child twice when I first went up there,” he said. “Now, we see some of the same children on every trip.”
Farris said with each trip there is a rumor that it will be his last. But he puts those to rest quickly each time.
“I am going to keep coming and keep bringing gifts and making the kids smile.”
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