|Shriners in Santa roles give gifts to children with disabilities.|
It was even better that my mother, now 98 and living in an adult foster care home in Shelby Township, was there with me decades ago when the Shriners made the dreams of children with disabilities come true.
Teachers at Detroit’s two major schools for children with disabilities in the 1950s told us a couple of weeks before Christmas that we could ask for a present that should cost $3 or less and the Shriners would make sure Santa got the word.
On the Friday before Christmas vacation began, we were taken from the schools by buses to the swanky Statler Hotel in downtown Detroit where the Shriners had a big Christmas party arranged. The buses lined the entire street and police officers were on duty to watch them and help us, if need be, get into the beautiful hotel.
We had a wonderful meal at long tables with white linen where turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and other good food was served. Each year, we got the same desert – a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup swirled on top.
After dinner, Christmas Carol in a red outfit with faux fur on the skirt bottom would come down the aisle where we were sitting in folding chairs next to our mother, dad, or foster parent. One of Santa’s talented helpers played Christmas songs on the stage in front of us and we sang along with him and Christmas Carol. A Shriner, always with a big smile, would encourage us: “Come on kids, sing louder. Santa loves to hear your voices.”
After an hour or so, “Here Comes Santa” was played by the piano man and we’d all look for Santa. He was so tall and fat and by using his magic he was able to carry a giant bag of gifts. We could hardly contain ourselves because we knew Santa was real and he was about to give us a gift.
Now I think how much more simple those times were then today. We were happiest, I think, because of the love shown by the Shriners.
After other children received their gift from Santa, it was my turn.
One of Santa’s helpers brought me my first plastic chess set. The pieces had green felt bottoms and the gift included a wooden chess board. “You don’t have to worry about Santa,” mother said. “He always knows what children want.”
I kept that set for years and remember that my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Otto at Leland School, taught me how to play.
Some girls received dolls. Other boys had Wilson baseball gloves which I recall cost about $3.11 in 1952, but no one left empty-handed.
We’d return to the buses and it was always a great ride home with my gift in one hand and mother Carol sitting next to me holding my other hand.
Jerry Wolffe is the Writer-in-Residence, Advocate-at-Large at the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center.