There are a number of Santas riding around on fire trucks these days in Bryan County, proof that Santa can be in a lot of different places at the same time.
But only one Santa has been doing it here since 2002.
That honor belongs to longtime Bryan County Emergency Services volunteer Capt. Asa Clay, who made the rounds again Monday night, and had been for more than week.
‘I’ve been doing this so long a woman brought out her son last year who was a senior on the Richmond Hill High School football team,” Clay said. “I had to take a picture with him because she had a picture of him with me taken when he was just a little boy.”
This year, COVID-19 has limited contact between Santa and his helpers and the kids they visit. Monday night, Santa stayed firmly planted atop a BCES engine while Battalion Chief Matthew Schultz led a convoy that included a Bryan County Emergency Management Agency Truck and a BCEMS ambulance as they wound through Buckhead East, doubling back time and again to make sure Santa rolled past every home in the subdivision.
Kids of all ages lined sidewalks or waved from windows. Some donated toys, others waved and smiled, more than a few thanked the firemen.
It’s that connection with the public that firefighters look forward too, Schultz said.
“We know 2020 has been a rough year for everybody, so this makes everyone in the department smile and feel good doing our part spreading holiday cheer,” he said. “It’s also good to interact with the community and the people we serve. It’s nice to be able to wish them a merry Christmas and hear back from them saying ‘thanks for your service.’” Volunteer firefighter Ron Becker, a local insurance agent, is a veteran of more than a dozen Santa runs. He said it’s something “I look forward to every single year.”
“You see the faces on the kids coming out to see Santa Claus, it’s something really special,” he said.
Volunteer firefighter Nathaniel Gallagher, a Coast Guard pilot from Tennessee who flew Blackhawks in the Army, said he was particularly touched by seeing a young child hand over a toy while saying, “’here’s a toy I’m giving it to kids who need it more than I do.’” “When I heard that I knew these are kids whose parents are teaching them the true spirit of Christmas at a young age, and that to me is about giving to someone else, not just getting. It’s giving.” Clay brought the tradition with him from Southside Fire Department when he moved from Chatham to Bryan County in 2002. Back then, the Bryan County Volunteer Fire Department – now Bryan County Emergency Services – handled the Santa runs all of South Bryan, parading through subdivisions in Richmond Hill as well.
Now, Richmond Hill Fire Department and Pembroke Fire Department make similar runs, helping bring Santa to the subdivisions inside their respective city limits.
Regardless of where in the county they occur, they’re somewhat unique to Bryan County, at least in Schultz’s experience.
Schultz, who has been a firefighter for 22 years and started in the suburbs of Chicago, said while he’s been with departments where Santa has sat on top of a fire engine during a parade, this is the first he’s served in where Santa goes to the subdivisions.
“This is unique in that we go around with Santa and Santa picks up toys,” he said. “I have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old who this helps teach the value of donating things and giving back to the community. They really enjoy going to the store and picking out a toy and then handing it to Santa to give to another kid less fortunate.”
Those toys, like others raised through various efforts, end up with Bryan County Family Connection Director Wendy Sims. She’s getting a trailer load of toys Friday.
And that’s part of what has made it a must-do for Clay, year after year, he said.
“It’s just the joy of giving back to the community,” he said. “And we get back from them in return. People really love to give when they know where it’s going. People are very generous.”