UPDATE: Earl Anderson has been chosen as the Huffington Posts's Greatest Person of the Day, which features stories of people across the nation who are confronting major issues and making a difference in their community. Congratulations, Earl!
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When Earl Anderson’s 28-year-old son, Jeff, was killed in a car accident 12 years ago, Anderson considered hanging up his sleigh. The resident had been dressing as Santa Claus and visiting needy children since the age of 20, sometimes bringing along his own children—including Jeff—dressed as elves.
After the tragic loss, Anderson wasn’t sure he could go on playing Santa.
“I thought about quitting, but my wife and others convinced me that Jeff would want Santa to go on,” he said.
And so he has.
Anderson, 61, converted what had previously been a personal endeavor into something larger. He started the Jeff Anderson Foundation in honor of his son and spread the word that he’d like to have more toys to give out to children, more opportunities to make a difference.
This year, Anderson expects to distribute as many as 16,000 toys to needy children. Many of the gifts will be handed out in person, when Anderson dons his red suit and brings joy to children in hospitals, shelters and other places where he feels the Christmas spirit is most desperately needed.
“When the kids see him, they get so excited,” said Lisa Boland, who coordinates Anderson’s visits to Advocate Christ Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn. “He really brings Christmas to them.”
Boland, the manager of child life services at the hospital, has worked with Anderson every Christmas since she started her job there 13 years ago. She thinks there is something special about this particular Santa.
“He’s the most beautiful Santa you’ve ever seen,” she said. “He brings beautiful gifts, and he picks out something special for each child.”
Though it’s the children who receive the gifts, Anderson also brings the gift of hope and compassion to the parents of pediatric patients.
“Parents are really blown away by his enthusiasm and generosity,” said Megan Gertz, child life coordinator at Loyola Hospital in Maywood. “The parents are often more excited than the kids because they don’t expect to see Santa in the hospital.”
Anderson gets to know each child and spends one-on-one time with them, Gertz said. Through his conversations with the children and their parents, he gets the information he needs to choose just the right gift for each child.
“He finds a toy that means something to every patient,” she said.
The children get one gift delivered in person, and find another on their bed on Christmas morning.
Spreading the Joy
Van-loads of toys from the foundation will also be delivered to the developmentally-disabled children served by St. Coletta’s of Illinois. Boxes of toys will be left at the hospitals Anderson visits to be given out as needed. Hundreds will be personally delivered by Santa to children at 10 area hospitals.
In addition to his holiday toy drive, Anderson works with a number of other local organizations to help families in need. In the past year, he has donated to the AT Children’s Fund in honor of Alyssa Wood, a local girl who suffers from the disease, as well as the Lemont food pantries, Police and Clergy Association, and others.
“I want to make sure the kids in town have a good Christmas and birthday,” he said. “If I hear that there’s a child in need, I step in.”
Anderson says he and his wife, Gail, work on the foundation’s toy gathering, fund-raising and distribution efforts non-stop from Nov. 1 through mid-January, and 15-30 hours a week the rest of the year. In past years, Gail has joined her husband as Mrs. Claus, but health problems prevented her from making the rounds this year.
“Earl and his wife have brightened the lives of so many kids who are in circumstances where Christmas falls to the shadows,” said Terri O’Neill, who serves the needy in the area through her own Hope and Friendship Ministries, which helped gather toys for the Jeff Anderson Foundation this year.
“He brings a sense of normalcy to kids in the hospitals and in difficult situations,” she said.
Working with sick and needy children is sometimes difficult for Anderson, but he says it’s the kindness and generosity of others that keeps him going.
“When people who don’t have that much donate something as small as a Hot Wheels car or a dollar that you know they could use, it always surprises me,” he said. “It shouldn’t, but it touches my heart more than anything else.”
Though the red suit and jolly smile usually bring joy and happiness wherever he goes, Anderson has seen his share of tragedies. He has spent time with many terminally ill children, cancer patients and burn victims. He recalls an especially heart-wrenching moment when he visited siblings in the burn unit at Loyola University Hospital. He was with them, dressed as Santa, when they died.
Boland knows how emotionally difficult it can be to work with critically ill children, and applauds Anderson for making a personal visit to each of the 70 patients in her hospital.
“Sometimes you will see him come out of a room and his eyes well up, and you know he really cares,” she said.
Anderson recalls his regular visits with a boy in one of the hospitals who had been abandoned by his family because of his physical disability. The child was later adopted, and sent a letter to Anderson telling him how much those visits from Santa meant.
“When you hold the hand of a child who is dying or you see the callousness of some people, it makes you pause a little,” he said. “But when you’re with a child who doesn’t have to take pain medication the whole time you’re there, or you’re with a child who won’t talk to anyone but you—it outweighs the bad.”
Gertz recalls how Anderson shared his compassion with a terminally ill child who was experiencing what was to be his last Christmas. She was amazed with how much time Anderson spent with the child, interacting, taking photos and choosing just the right gift.
“When they’re in the hospital, they get the Christmas spirit thanks to Earl,” Gertz said. “Without Santa and the Jeff Anderson Foundation, we wouldn’t be able to have a Christmas here for the children.”
Anderson’s love of Christmas—and philanthropy—started early. His mother used to take him to visit the needy at Christmas each year.
“My mother always said that at Christmas, everybody believes that reindeer can fly and dreams can come true,” he said. “I’ve experienced miracles come true with kids, and I believe.”
O’Neill, who has known Anderson since the foundation’s early days, sees his desire to make a difference come through in everything he does.
“His passion comes not only because he is a great person, but because he loved and lost someone,” she said. “We pick ourselves up to make that life go on and create a legacy—and that’s what Earl is doing.”
A Community Effort
The thousands of toys that will brighten the holidays for so many children were gathered thanks to the efforts of people throughout the community. Dozens of organizations and individuals helped raise funds and solicit the donation of the toys that Anderson has stored throughout the year.
Groups all over town support his efforts, including Girl Scout troops, schools, churches, community organizations, local businesses, civic groups and individuals. One local man put out the word about Anderson’s efforts at his office holiday party and ended up with 350 toys.
“There are kids in this town that will have a Christmas because a lot of people came together,” he said. “And there are parents out of work who will have hope that tomorrow can be better.”
Though he spends his days inspiring others, Anderson prefers to keep a low profile about his work. He doesn’t have a website and doesn’t solicit donations from those he hasn’t worked with in the past. If his story inspires others, he hopes they will pay his kindness forward in their own way.
“Get involved in the community. Get involved with a child. Extend a hand to somebody,” he said. “If one person who hears my story does that, we can make a difference. If everybody would do that, we could change the world."