Andrew Dean, dressed as elf, embarks on 36-hour holiday fundraising journey for St. Jude

Collecting donations and dishing out holiday cheer, Andrew hopes to ease the burden of children with cancer.

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  •  5 min

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If you’re traveling by Delta Air Lines the week of Christmas and you look up from your phone, you might do a doubletake. There before you might be a holiday elf.

Yes, that’s right. A full-sized elf in an outfit of bright, resplendent holiday red.

Well, not an elf really. A grown man dressed as an elf. And no, before you ask, he didn’t lose a bet.

Andrew the Elf

He has another reason. A pretty great reason:

Andrew Dean, also known as Andrew the Elf, is flying from stop to stop across the U.S., on his own dime, to raise money for the kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Just like he’s done every year since 2016.

He makes his announcement at the gate and collects donations with his Santa bag. He hands out business cards, which include the link to his St. Jude fundraising page.

If you give, that’s wonderful, and if you don’t, that’s OK, too. You still get a smile. No bad vibes here.

And it’s something so unexpected, so…silly really, that maybe you let the stress of the day roll off you. Put down your things and take the gift he’s offering — a chance to be a child again.  

Speaking of children, just look at them as they look at Andrew. They’re beaming because they know, in the way that kids do, that this man — no, this elf — is really here for them.

'No one should have to go through cancer'

As a cheer and dance photographer, and a former college mascot, Andrew Dean of Louisville, Kentucky, knows what it takes to rally a crowd. 

When he was in college and his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, he joined her fundraising team — the Empty Breasters — to raise awareness and money for the cause. So he understands a thing or two about fundraising, too.

But it wasn’t until he attended a national cheerleading championship hosted by Varsity Spirit in 2015 that he heard stories of St. Jude and knew he wanted to help kids fighting cancer. Varsity Spirit, a leader in cheerleading, dance team and band apparel, as well as camps and competitions, unites the cheer and dance community in support of St. Jude. Varsity Spirit is a division of Varsity Brands, which since 2011 has raised more than $10.5 million for St. Jude.

“No one should have to go through cancer, but when you think about a child going through cancer, it just hits that much harder,” said Andrew.

So Andrew decided to not only raise money and awareness for St. Jude, but to do it midair in an elf costume.

'Not just a guy in a costume anymore'

A good elf costume for the airplane must keep its wearer warm enough when it’s cool in the plane cabin and cool enough when it’s warm.

It needs to look like a true holiday red, no matter the lighting situation. Not too pink and not too orange.

Elf attire

It has to be flexible enough to allow Andrew to move about the cabin freely so he can collect donations and perhaps kneel in the aisle next to a passenger who wants to talk.

Take for instance the young man who thanked him on a flight to Memphis, telling Andrew he’d been a St. Jude patient as a boy.

“I get goosebumps when I think about it,” said Andrew.

Sometimes, people heckle Andrew the Elf. He doesn’t mind.

“Especially as an adult man flying through the airport dressed as an elf, people think I lost a bet, so I always have men and women coming up to me. They’re like, ‘So what was the bet. What did you lose?’ And it’s very much of an icebreaker,” said Andrew.

A conversation starts and a donation to St. Jude often follows. He credits the elf costume for that.

“I’ve always made it a point to tell people it’s not how much you give, it’s that you get involved if you feel passionately about it. I don’t care if you give me 10 cents or a dollar, 10 dollars or 100 dollars, give what you can afford and know no matter the amount, I appreciate it all the same.”

It’s a heckuva deal, getting the holiday spirit in exchange for a small donation.

The people on the airplane know this, and their generosity astounds him. 

'This love and compassion for people'

Long before he was Andrew the Elf, he was an energetic teen in Omaha, Nebraska, with a quirky set of interests, including being a mascot, photography and juggling.

When he was 15, his mom, a pediatric nurse, worked for a doctor whose little boy had a type of cancer called neuroblastoma. Andrew would visit the boy and juggle for him, just to make the 4-year-old laugh.

“It was one of those things that always stuck with me,” said Andrew, “seeing him go through that.”

Andrew the Elf

When the boy passed away, Andrew attended the funeral with his parents. His mom, Jayne Dean, remembers how he got up during the service, walked down the chapel aisle and shared his memories of the little boy in front of the whole congregation.

At that moment, Jayne said, “I knew that he just had this love and compassion for people, and he just wanted to make a difference in the world by the things he did.”

Andrew visited St. Jude in 2018 and was blown away by the focus on kids and their happiness. Instead of wheelchairs, he said, “They had kids in wagons... I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’ And seeing how all of the walls were painted…and the nurses’ stations are built lower so when a child is looking at the nurse, they’re looking at each other eye to eye.

“That’s when it really hit, ‘This is going to be a life-long mission right here.’ Something that’s not just going to be a couple years long, but this will continue with me probably for the rest of my life, to be honest.”

'A kid at heart'

Before he’s done with his 2021 holiday flight, Andrew will have spent 36 hours in airports or on Delta flights.

Does he worry he might hallucinate or start really believing he’s an elf?

“It’s possible,” he laughed.

Readying for the fundraiser has involved researching to find a synchronized set of flights that will take him to as many places in the U.S. as possible, while also allowing ample time to move from gate to gate.

Andrew belongs to the Delta Diamond Medallion Flyer program, one of Delta’s programs for its most frequent flyers, and Delta is his airline of choice for his fundraising journeys. Delta has been a supporter of St. Jude since 2010, but Andrew wants people to know he’s not a Delta employee, and he pays for his own flights.

And he’s united the public in raising more than $100,000 for St. Jude.

“I’m deeply moved by what he’s done,” his mom said. “It just really warmed my heart how he could connect with people and how he’s so passionate about trying to find cures for all these different diseases. But year after year, I thought, ‘Oh Andrew, you’re in your 30s now and still dressing up in these costumes!’”

She laughs.

“He’s just kind of a kid at heart. He just loves to entertain.”

Andrew the Elf

It’s been 20-plus years since he juggled for that little boy in Omaha, but the child still guides the man.

Andrew could have thought of any number of ways to raise money for St. Jude, but he’s chosen to dress as an elf and ask for donations on planes because “this is something that would make him proud.” By “him,” he means that little boy.

And maybe that’s the essence of what Andrew is trying to do: to create something to help a child that is also something a child would love.

Because what could be more delightful and unexpected than dressing up as an elf and flying up into the sky?

It’s the silliest thing you ever heard.  

And that little boy in Omaha would have loved this. He absolutely would have loved this.

And that’s how Andrew Dean knows what he’s doing is right.

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