The role of a mall Santa comes as an emotional rollercoaster, with youngsters tending to be blunter in their honesty than most adults.
“I think the hardest part is kids who come in and say things like ‘I’d like my mom to come home for Christmas,’” South Hill Mall Santa Jim Verokosky said.
In many cases, he added, these children don’t know where their missing parent is.
“That’s when I say, thank God for the costume -- it covers up the tears.”
Some kids serve as inspiration, he said, citing one young boy who opted to give his present to someone in greater need. The only thing he wanted for Christmas was to see his father.
“I was just so impressed that this kid wanted to share. He had nothing, and yet he was willing to share,” Verokosky said.
In addition to spending 36 years as a social worker, Verokosky has been a foster parent to 174 youth and an adoptive parent to five, alongside his wife, Ronna.
They’ve spent their lives trying to help children in whatever way they can -- something Verokosky has tried to continue doing through his role as Santa.
“I’m a little different in the way I play Santa Claus,” he said. “I’ll get down on the floor with them and we’ll colour or sing, or sometime we’ll play train and (parade) up and down the mall.”
Kids have some very important needs that in many cases aren’t being met, he said.
“Christmas is family, it definitely is, but what happens when they don’t have family? You’ve got to compensate for that somehow.”
To some children, Santa becomes something of a father figure, with children treating him with affection, in some cases bringing him cookies.
I think the hardest part is kids who come in and say things like ‘I’d like my mom to come home for Christmas.' - South Hill Mall Santa Jim Verokosky
“They really need a father figure. The men in their lives come and go,” Verokosky said, noting that sometimes these father figures aren’t positive role models.
Visiting Santa is all about peace, joy and hope for children and parents alike, he said.
“For a few minutes, when they come to me, they know there’s peace, because they know there’s not someone yelling at them to behave or to be good and all the rest,” he said.
“They know they’re safe here, and they can be happy and maybe we can sing, maybe we can dance, maybe we can cry.”
Santa gives children a positive moment to hold dear to their hearts,” Verokosky said.
“They know that their situation isn’t forever … They need this yearly injection to get through another year.
“You just want to change the world, and I guess that’s what Santa Claus is all about. This Santa Claus, anyway, just wants to change the way these kids are living.”
Verokosky will continue to serve as Santa at the South Hill Mall on Thursdays and Fridays, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., until Dec. 23. Parents are encouraged to bring their own cameras, to take photos of their children with Santa, free of charge.
Thereafter, he’ll be at home, where he’ll welcome a large group of people who consider home to be wherever he and Ronna are.
“Christmas in our house isn’t gifts, money and all the rest,” he said. “Christmas is, I guess you could say, love.”