For the more than 16 million children living in poverty, climbing onto Santa Claus' lap isn't about the "ho, ho, hos" and asking for a shiny new iPod. Children wishing for shoes that fit and the possibility of moving out of a van are focused on looking into Santa's eyes and finding a reason to believe that they have a chance at a better life.
For the graduates of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, the 74-year-old institution that's been dubbed "the Harvard" of Santa schools, they know what it means to embody the figure of Santa. They don't slip into the red velour suit to offer a child a quick fix. They take on the role to try to lift youngsters out of despair, even just for a moment, and into a space where they can hope that sometime soon, they won't have to worry about their next meal, and they can just be kids.
Meet three Super Santas who have committed their holiday season to fulfilling that mission -- to giving children who have lost nearly everything a chance to believe in the miracles of the holiday season again.
THE SANTA WHO GIVES
During his debut season playing Santa Claus, Kevin McCarthy, 57, has dived right into helping the neediest cases. He delivered gifts to children at a community center on Chicago's South Side. He brought a turkey dinner to teens getting treated in a psych ward. He's given kids at a local Boys & Girls club a reason to stay off the streets.
"You can tell when you get their attention," McCarthy told The Huffington Post. "Even if it's only for a two- or three-minute period, it makes the whole thing worth it."
For McCarthy, taking on the role of Santa is about restoring the glint in a child's eye. Even when he takes on a for-profit gig, he only asks for a donation, so that he can buy gifts for disadvantaged children.
While visiting the psychiatric ward at St. Margaret's in Dyre, Ind., McCarthy helped restore a little bit of hope in a troubled 15-year-old.
"I never believed in Santa all my life, but this year I need to," the teen told McCarthy. "And you’re the guy."
THE SANTA WHO PRAYS
After eight years of working the Santa circuit in Jackson, Tenn., Ronald Canter, 62, decided to keep his long white beard all year round.
"I like to see the smile on the kids' faces and the sparkle of their eyes when they see me," Canter told The Huffington Post. "I can be dressed in blue jeans at Walmart and a kid will tug at me and say, 'Are you him?'"
A graduate of the CWH's four-day Santa program three times over, Canter keeps returning to learn how to best foster a magical environment for the kids he visits at day care centers.
"There are all these kids out there watching you. You make sure you try and be upright, a mentor, and something that they can look up to," Canter said. "You don't play Santa Claus. You are Santa Claus."
The most important lesson Canter said he has learned is to only promise what is within his reach.
When a child asks the retired schoolteacher to bring his mommy or daddy back, the kinds of questions "no one can answer," he offers them a prayer.
"You say, 'I can’t do that right now, but I'll tell you what I will do. I'll take your name down and Mrs. Claus and I will say a prayer,'" Canter said. "We feel a little better because we know we didn't promise them anything we couldn't give."
THE SANTA WHO NEVER QUITS
Whether he's enduring a summer heat wave, or a record-breaking snowstorm, Curtis Becker, 58, always has his red suit pressed and ready to go.
As the founder of Santas 4 Christ, a nonprofit that brings toys, clothes and hope to struggling families, the Department of Defense contractor never breaks character. He knows just how important it is for a kid in hospice, or a child facing poverty, to meet a magical personality even after the holidays have long passed.
"We're available whenever a child wants, regardless of the time of year," Becker said.
Becker has gleaned from his experiences at the CWH Santa Claus School and from caring for his wife, who is battling Hepatitis C, how to sensitively handle the cases he sees.
When he visits a child suffering from a fatal illness, he checks his "ho, ho hos" at the door. What he does bring is a quiet one-on-one approach, an opportunity to engage in prayer and open conversation. When he visits an impoverished area, like Pikeville, Md., he arrives with a 16-foot trailer and 24-foot budget truck, packed to capacity with toys. He gives each of the 400-plus children a chance to share their story.
"I can offer some comfort, some solace," Becker said. "I offer them the kind of Santa they want."