ON BOXING DAY, hundreds of under privileged children crossed Paradise Island bridge — many of them for the first time — to attend the Santa Claus Committee’s Christmas party organised especially for their enjoyment.
Atlantis made the Crown Ballroom in the Beach Towers available and provided lunch for the children, who when they saw the glistening chandeliers, and surrounding beauty thought they had arrived in “wonderland”.
Many Bahamians and foreigners gave generously to make the special day possible with $30,000 worth of toys for Santa to distribute. Rupert Roberts of SuperValue also provided food to ensure that the committee’s volunteers, and many of the community’s senior citizens and shut-ins also had a Christmas dinner.
The work of the Santa Claus committee, was started by Tribune publisher, the late Sir Etienne Dupuch, in a back room at The Tribune in 1963 – 53 years ago.
The intention of Sir Etienne and his small committee was to bring joy to as many of the community’s poor children as possible at Christmas time. Members of the community contributed toys and money for the purchase of new toys. Even prisoners at HM Prison, Fox Hill, turned out toys for the children from their prison workshop. Committee women met annually at The Tribune to sort and wrap the gifts and arrange for their delivery to homes that would have had no Christmas without them.
The work ended in 1969.
Many years later, Robert Carron, one of Sir Etienne’s grandsons, on his return from Notre Dame University in 1991, was going through his grandfather’s large file of charities, which he had either started or sponsored. Robert’s eyes lit on the work of the Santa Claus committee. He vowed to resurrect that charity to the memory of his grandfather.
Robert got a group of his friends interested and on that first Christmas they loaded a truck with brightly wrapped gifts and went into the poorer areas of New Providence to play Santa Claus. As children ran behind their truck, Robert’s group was heartbroken by the numbers that had to be turned away when the last gift was handed out.
Robert and his small band realised that if they were to have an impact, they had to enlarge the scope of their work.
In 1993, the Santa Claus committee with John Sitomer of Gold’s Gym now on board, was relaunched. The committee appealed to the public for funds. As usual the public was generous. That first Christmas — and many Chistmases afterwards — Gold’s Gym was turned into a Christmas wonderland.
It was amazing who willingly gave up their Christmas day to go to the Gym to help serve the poor, and who contributed food and drinks for the large party. There were bank managers and their wives, CEOs of companies, hoteliers, and men and women from almost every section of the community — from Lyford Cay to Grants Town — united in a common cause to serve those less fortunate in material possessions. Even visitors from abroad, here to spend Christmas with family or friends, gave up the day to carve turkeys for the children.
And so the work grew until it was too large for Gold’s Gym.
By Christmas 2000, it had been relocated to the ballroom at Atlantis on Paradise Island, then owned by the Kerzner family. By now the committee was not only taking care of almost 2,000 children, but it also included some of the elderly.
Before the party for the children, Santa Claus, with a bag of toys first visited the children’s ward of the Princess Margaret Hospital, where Christmas Carols were sung and gifts distributed.
About 1995 when the party was still held at Gold’s Gym a teacher arrived with a small group of children. The children quietly took their places at the table, bowed their heads in thankful prayer, ate their Christmas dinner, received their gifts, and as the party ended one of them stood to make a short speech of thanks. With their teacher in the lead they quietly left the gym. Robert was so impressed by such well behaved children that he made it a point to get to know the teacher. This was his first introduction to Cynthia “Mother” Pratt.
For the past three Christmases, instead of parties in one location, the toys have been sent to certain recipients, such as “Mother” Pratt, who was by then the MP for St Cecilia’s, later Deputy Prime Minister. They were also sent to parish priests, and MPs so that they too would have gifts to distribute at their own Christmas functions. Many of the Family Islands have always been included in this Christmas giving.
Monday’s function at Atlantis was a return to the annual event being held at one venue.
As “Mother” Pratt said of Monday’s party: The experience for these children, including some of their parents, as they “rose over that bridge for the first time” it transformed their lives - it gave them hope, it made them feel that they were somebody. “It was that sense of hope as they clutched their toy that made it all so touching, so worthwhile.”
The Tribune would like to thank all of those who in some way – large or small — contributed to making it possible to embrace the less fortunate of our communities and let them know that they too are important.