This Santa spends Christmas making ill kids smile

EVERETT — There was no mistaking Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Even though they were in their street clothes as they ate breakfast at the Totem restaurant in Everett, they were recognized.

The kids in the next booth knew it was Santa.

The children poked each other and pointed.

“I told you it pays to be good all year,” their mother said in a loud whisper.

Glenda Wilson also saw her husband’s Santalike qualities: his twinkling eyes, his merry dimples, his very real snow-white beard and long hair, his broad face and round belly.

And she knew how to put his looks to good use.

Married 11 years with a blended family that includes six children, 26 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, Dean and Glenda Wilson had some marital angst five years ago when he developed a Scroogelike attitude about Christmas.

“I was being bah-humbugish because I wanted to control the spending,” Dean said.

Glenda just wanted the joy of Christmas.

“So I told him he could focus on the spirit of the season,” she said. “I challenged him to put on a Santa suit and visit kids in hospice care, and he agreed.”

On Dec. 25 the Wilsons plan to spend their fifth Christmas volunteering as Santa and Mrs. Claus, visiting very ill children through the Carousel Program run by Providence Hospice and Home Care of Snohomish County.

Instead of having a cozy day with grandchildren, the Wilsons are scheduled to drive hundreds of miles across the county stopping at the homes of up to a dozen families in which a child is suffering from cancer, birth defects or many other maladies.

“Our families support our volunteer work, and this makes Dec. 25 just as special as possible,” Dean said. “It’s pretty cool. An honor, a pleasure and a lot of fun.”

The Port Susan couple like to have fun. They met when Glenda answered Dean’s classified ad seeking a square dance partner.

Glenda, who will turn 55 on Dec. 23, moved to Snohomish County in 1980 and has been a home health aide with Providence Hospice for nearly 10 years.

Dean, 61, is a paratransit operator for the city of Everett. In 1986 he retired from the Navy, ending a 23-year career that took him all over the world, including four years based in Iceland.

Glenda sewed their Claus costumes. Each year she makes arrangements with the Carousel program for the Santa visits and, with the help of her secret band of “elves,” she gathers gifts to take to the families.

In July 2006, the Wilsons were surprised to be honored by Providence Hospice and Home Care with the agency’s Angel of Hospice award. Debi Schmidt, clinical supervisor of the Carousel program, praised the couple, whom she calls generous.

“Interestingly, not one child has opened a present from Santa while he was in their home,” Schmidt said. “Santa is the best gift of all to the Carousel children.”

The Wilsons can remember almost every home visit over the past four years and enjoy telling the stories, even when it makes them choke up.

“When we revisit a family, that’s a good thing because we know there are some we won’t ever see again,” Dean said.

For Santa and Mrs. Claus, it’s all about leaving a good memory.

“You live for that moment when you see the sparkle in the kids’ eyes, the moment when the visit from Santa makes everything OK and normal in that family,” Glenda said. “It’s a moment of relief for the parents and the siblings of the sick child.”

The Wilsons struggle with the question of why bad things happen to good people, especially little kids.

Glenda, who believes that God doesn’t give people more than they can handle, said that perhaps such sadness forces people to see the blessings and fragility of life. And she hopes it drives people to work on medical advances that will keep others from suffering.

The Wilsons also don’t have a quick answer as to why the truth about Santa is seemingly learned at increasingly younger ages.

“Kids are bombarded with information from the television and the computer,” Glenda said, “and I guess they don’t have time to use their imaginations.”

Dean’s goal with every Christmas visit is to make it as real as possible, he said.

“I am Santa Claus,” he said.

To that end, the Wilsons are putting together photos of Santa to be used in a fundraising calendar for the Carousel hospice program.

The calendar illustrates what Santa Claus does the rest of the year.

Included are photos of Santa in a red T-shirt standing in the Skagit Valley tulip fields and Santa wearing red lederhosen at the May Fest in Leavenworth.

And just like the morning Dean Wilson was recognized at the Totem restaurant, children also took notice on the days the pictures were taken.

“Most kids aren’t really surprised to see Santa dressed in other clothes. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, Santa comes out to see the tulips, too,’” Dean said.

At the end of Christmas day, the Wilsons said they likely will return home exhausted.

Even so, Glenda said she can’t imagine not volunteering to help her community, even on Christmas.

“We’ll be tired,” Dean said in agreement, “but we’ll be on a high, too. It can’t get any better than that kind of day.”

Reporter Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427 or

To volunteer

To learn more about volunteering with Providence Hospice and Home Care, attend an information session scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 16 in downtown Everett. To register and get parking instructions, call 425-261-4815 by Jan. 14.

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