For 40th year, Santa's sleigh heads to homes of sick Philly kids

Jim McCloskey prepares for his 40th year of donning his Santa suit and helping critically ill kids. He is seen in his home December 14, 2016 in Blue Bell, PA.

With a few ho ho's and a swish of his red velvet cape - plus a police escort through the streets of Philadelphia - Santa appeared at Amanye Carter's house on Christmas Eve. Her mother opened the front door, and in Santa went.

From the top of the stairs of their Southwest Philadelphia home, Amanye and her younger brother Antonio cried out: "Santa! Santa!"

They ran into his arms, 8-year-old Amanye beaming.

"We came 29,417 miles to see you," Santa told the children as they settled onto his lap. "There wasn't any snow, so highway patrol had to get me here. I left my sleigh at 30th Street."

Then, presents appeared in bright red bags. Amanye's eyes shone as she pulled sparkling, red-and-green wrapping paper off the first gift.

Amanye has sickle cell disease, a disorder that compromises red blood cells. On Saturday, her family was one of 80 - all with children who are patients in the oncology and hematology departments at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children - to receive special deliveries.

As Amanye unwrapped a bright-pink nightgown that she immediately put on, Jim McCloskey watched with a smile.

This is his 40th year playing Santa to seriously ill kids.

"It's about something magical that happens during that little period of time called Christmas," said McCloskey, who is 70. "Helping these kids is what keeps me going."

All told, 258 kids - patients and their siblings - would be receiving gifts on Christmas, from McCloskey and 21 La Salle College High School students also dressed as Santa.

McCloskey said he delights in turning a child with a hardship into a hero.

"All of a sudden, the sick kid is not just a sick kid," McCloskey said. "He's the kid who brought Santa here."

McCloskey is an investment manager and Villanova University business teacher from Blue Bell. The Vietnam veteran said he knew he wanted to help children after seeing child casualties while doing combat duty as an Army Special Operations commander.

"I was fighting alongside people willing to die to protect their 10-foot-by-12-foot soybean patch," he said. "My heart was torn apart every time I came across a 6-year-old who'd just been blown away by enemy fire. . . . You constantly ask yourself, 'Why the hell are we fighting a war?' You ask because it's the kids who pay the price."

He started his Yuletide campaign in 1976, when he brought candy canes to St. Christopher's to cheer up the cancer-stricken young son of a friend, John McKeever, founder of the Committee to Benefit Children, and the other kids there.

Now, the committee works with social workers and donors to fulfill children's Christmas wish lists. McCloskey reached out to La Salle College High, his alma mater, in 2001.

"Each of our boys has to be Santa for children who might be experiencing their last Christmas," said Chris Carabello, the school's public relations director. "Some are on oxygen. Sometimes, the sick child doesn't want to get off Santa's lap."

So the teenagers give up their Christmas Eve to help out - and, often, sing carols, play instruments, or assemble toys with the kids. Said Carabello: "They will do whatever they have to do to create Christmas."

More than 100 high school students volunteered to help as Santas or elves this year. The gifts come from donors in an effort coordinated by the Committee to Benefit the Children, a charity that supports St. Christopher's patients.

They take care of the parents for Christmas, too: Every family gets a turkey and a bag to make a holiday dinner, along with a grocery store gift card and other small gifts, said Joy Minnick, the committee's executive director.

In the last 12 years, Rebecca L. Poulton, 17, has been visited three times by McCloskey's Santa during Christmas Eve stays in the oncology unit.

"It's amazing what this gentleman has done for these kids," said her father, John Edward Johnson, of Bucks County. "Just picture the look on a child's face when they're lying in the hospital, as sick as they can possibly get, and Santa Claus comes to the door and brightens their entire day. It's a light-up moment . . . they will never forget."

At Amanye's house, Christmas cheer came in the big red bags, and in the form of a hot-pink bike. Amanye gasped and ran to it. "I got a new bike!" she exclaimed as an elf volunteer pushed it inside.

"They really helped out a lot, because I was thinking this year, what am I going to do? And then I got a call saying they were going to come," said Amanye's mother, Angela Carter. "I was like, 'Thank you, God.' It's a blessing."

Amanye's health has been good recently, said Carter, a single mother with three kids. Donors had provided presents to the family in past years, but this was their first visit from McCloskey's Santa crew, arranged through their social worker in the hematology department, she said.

Carter didn't prepare her children, so Santa's arrival was a surprise - like magic.

After Santa had gone, Amanye arranged the presents under the Christmas tree, to be opened Sunday morning. Then she ran her hands over her new bike, looking at it with a big grin.

Where is she going to ride it?

"Everywhere," she said.

jmcdaniel@philly.com

610-313-8205

@McDanielJustine