Santa reaches out to some special youth

Published 10:12 am Tuesday, December 22, 2009

IRONTON — Have you ever wondered if Santa Claus is real?

Ask the children in the multiple handicapped classrooms at Rock Hill Elementary School.

Last Friday, Santa and one of his favorite elves continued a decades-old tradition, showing up once again at the school with a sack stuffed with toys and a sleigh full of hugs.

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You see, Ol’ St. Nick is a longtime friend of former Rock Hill Middle School principal Jim Wipert. Since Wipert has been a good boy for so many years, Santa has always granted his wishes.

And Wipert and his wife, Mary, have used their wishes on children in need.

“We started this probably 25 years ago,” he said, adding that he noticed back then that a lot of the handicapped children didn’t receive presents for Christmas.

So, Wipert got on the phone and dialed the North Pole. Santa Claus listened intently as Wipert described the plight of so many local families who struggle with the expense and emotional strain that accompanies caring for such special children.

Santa, apologizing for such a glaring oversight, promised Wipert that from that day forward he would make an advance trip to town just for these children.

And he’s done it every year since.

To coordinate the party, Wipert called on a local club where he served as a trustee at the time: the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

With the Elks in tow, the party grew from year to year.

Many Elks members decided to ease Santa’s burdens and personally fill the Christmas lists the children provided. Other special elves donated their time and money to ensure that St. Nick’s visit would be a first-class affair.

Like Wipert, they get their wishes ten-fold when they see a teary-eyed child reach out to the jolly elf, screaming in ultra-excitement, “I love you Santa!”

Nearly four years ago, the Wiperts’ only son, Erin, now 39, was involved in a debilitating motorcycle accident that left him nearly paralyzed. Although he has made great strides in recovery, even walking with Jim’s assistance periodically, Erin is still currently bound mostly to a wheel chair.

“He knows everything,” Wipert stressed. “His disabilities are ninety percent physical.”

Since caring for their son is of the utmost importance to the Wipert family, time for outside activities, like the Elks Christmas party for handicapped youth, is scarce.

Enter Elks member Missy Craycraft.

Craycraft eagerly stepped into Wipert’s shoes a few years ago to ensure that the youngsters she had grown to care about continued to receive special treatment at Christmas.

“Seeing these kids hugging Santa and getting so excited, it’s just overwhelming to witness,” Craycraft said. “There’s never a dry eye in the house.”

She noted that the children love interactions with people and that the parents are happy that others are giving their children recognition.

“Our biggest platform with this program is to raise awareness in our area that there are so many special needs kids right here under our noses,” Craycraft said adamantly, noting that many of the children aren’t often seen in public because of transportation issues and the enormous cost of continual care.

“Sometimes I think it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” she said.

Turning her attention back to Jim Wipert, she mentioned a tragic irony. “He spent so many years caring for kids with handicaps. Now, he’s taking care of his own son and doing a fantastic job.”

“This is to remind us about the true spirit of Christmas,” Craycraft continued. “There are people all around us who can use our help.”

Wipert, who was present for the party yet again this year, agreed with Craycraft.

“You’ve got to be there to really experience how these kids react when Santa comes in,” he said.

“That’s my Christmas.”