ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — It’s a busy time of year for Santa.
With less than two weeks left to prepare for Christmas, he needs helpers at stores, malls, preschools, and other spots around central Texas to relay wishlists to the North Pole.
“Once I retired, this is the next thing that I wanted to do in my life,” said Santa Rick Perkins, a central Texas man who, for the last four years, has donned the red and white uniform 30-40 times every December to bring kids the magic of Christmas.
Thursday, he sat patiently in front of a decorated tree at the Stepping Stone School in Round Rock as class after class took turns sitting on his lap for photos, some excited to share their Christmas lists, others awestruck and seemingly unable to speak.
It’s a big change for Perkins, who spent 40 years working in the insurance industry before retiring.
“People walk away from Santa with a smile on their face,” he said, “and the other industry, not so much.”
KXAN found Santa Rick through the website Lone Star Santas, a group created a decade ago by two professional Santas in the state as a way to connect the North Pole with qualified stewards of Christmas cheer.
“At that time, there was what has been called the ‘Santa Wars,'” said Santa Jim Fletcher, a Cypress-based Santa who co-founded the group.
That’s the shorthand for infighting within the leadership of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, a national association with hundreds of members. Groups of Santas split off from the order starting around 2007, and the Texas liaison to the group, Santa Gene Clayton, started talking to Fletcher about an alternative.
“So we said, ‘Why don’t we just start our own group here in Texas?'”
They started with just a handful of Santas at their first meeting, and now it’s grown to more than 350 Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and elves statewide, with as many as 10 new members every month.
The site features a search function to locate nearby Santas, most of whom are insured and professionally trained. All of them, Fletcher said, are background-checked every year.
This year, the group is seeing a surge in requests for Lone Star Santas. Fletcher couldn’t put a number to it, but said it might be as much as a 20 or 30 percent bump in requests, possibly due to a stronger economy.
But the Santas don’t stop working when Christmas is over. In 2011, when a tornado tore through Joplin, Mo., Fletcher wondered what they could do to help. Members of his group started collecting toys, money, and food through churches and other community organizations, and they loaded up two trailers full and made their way to Missouri.
“That one day we gave out well over 3,500 toys,” Fletcher said. “And on the way back, we said, ‘This is our mission.'”
The Convoy of Toys was born, and since 2011 Lone Star Santas have collected and donated toys and other aid at least 17 other times following disasters, many of them in Texas, including in Bastrop after the wildfires in 2011; in West after the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion; in San Marcos and Wimberley after the floods in 2015; and in Houston, Dallas, and Nacogdoches after Hurricane Harvey last year.
“It’s not all about just saying ‘Ho ho ho,'” Perkins said.
For him, and for the others in the group, it’s about spreading joy around the holidays and creating memories for families. Dodging germs from hundreds of kids to avoid getting sick is worth it, he said, to be a part of those memories.
“It brings joy to your heart,” he said.