HOLLYWOOD — Santa Claus doesn’t always rely on his sleigh and reindeer to bring Christmas joy — and he doesn’t always wait until Christmas Eve. On Dec. 6, the jolly old soul laughed hearty “Ho, ho, ho” while delivering gifts to patients at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital thanks to Seminole Tribe citizen-elves and a Tribal van filled with toys.
“This is a Christmas wish come true,” said Andres Fernandez, of Aventura, when his daughter Juliana, 7, received a surprise visit from old St. Nick and a Candy Land board game from Trail Liaison Norman Huggins.
Exactly 110 toys, divided into age groups, were delivered to sick children throughout the hospital’s oncologic and surgical floors by Santa, Huggins, Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. President Mitchell Cypress, Tribe firefighters and Board employees.
All of the gifts, and hundreds more delivered later to local charities, were donated by Tribal members, employees and drive-by strangers via a toy drive presented by Seminole Gaming during a collection effort from Dec. 1-3 at the corner of Stirling Road and U.S. 441 in Hollywood. The charity groups included Kids in Distress, HOPE, and the E.A.S.E Foundation. Books were donated to the Russell Reading Foundation.
President Cypress created the big-hearted toy drive in 2007 when he was Chairman. The good-deed effort was held every December through his administration and was relaunched last year when he became head of the Board.
President Cypress said a painful childhood memory inspired the effort. He recalled 1953 and a Christmas gift exchange run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that connected Native children and kids from a local public school. Then, he was living in a tourist attraction along U.S. Route 27 with his single mother.
“We were so poor but my mother gathered up six pennies so I could buy a Baby Ruth candy bar to wrap up for the boy who picked my name,” Cypress said. He’ll never forget the moment when the boy saw his gift.
“He thought he would get a cool tomahawk from me, an Indian boy. But when he opened the present, he only saw a 6-cent candy bar. He just put it down and stared at me. I never wanted to disappoint anyone at Christmas again,” Cypress said.
Stephen Bowers, who represented the Tribe’s military veterans and the American Indian Veterans Memorial, Inc. during the hospital delivery, was moved to tears when he watched President Cypress present a crib toy to the parents of a 2-month-old cancer patient.
“I’m just really glad that we can do this for other people. For so many years we were grateful if churches would bring us something for Christmas,” Bowers said.
Bowers smiled while remembering the early1950s when the Hollywood Reservation was still called Dania Reservation, and one church group traditionally gave Seminole kids one apple, an orange and a piece of candy inside a brown paper bag. The Florida heat and humidity always melted the candy onto the orange peel.
“But we appreciated it,” he said with a half-laugh. “It was always good to lick the candy off the orange.”
Sometimes parents appreciate the generosity more than the children.
Seminole Tribe paramedic Robert Soto said he spent a lot of time in the cancer unit as a father when his son battled cancer two years ago. Being on the receiving end of caring strangers bolstered his strength, he said, because he felt a world of wonderful people supporting his family.
“Seeing the smiling faces of the parents and kids today reminds me of that time. It feels great to come back and be able to give back,” Soto said.
Fernandez said none of the parents and children expected the Santa and Seminole visit, much less with them bearing dozens of gifts. He said his daughter was “star-struck” when she met President Cypress and Huggins, even more than coming face to face with Santa Claus.
“She’s been studying Native American history and now can’t wait to get better and back to school so she can tell her friends all about it,” Fernandez said. “For her, meeting Seminole people was like meeting all of the singers from One Direction.”