Santa still visited Fairfield's children this year, just not by firetruck

FAIRFIELD — For 15 years, the Fairfield Fire Fighters Charitable Foundation has hosted the Santa Express - bringing Saint Nick to people’s doorstep via firetruck, while also raising money for a good cause.

This year the event was slightly different — taking place online via Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic — but the foundation is still raising money for the Tommy Fund for Childhood Cancer.

“Our executive board of the foundation talked about not doing it at all this year,” said Bob Smith, the foundation’s president. “But, it’s become quite the event for our guys as well. Nobody ever calls the fire department when they’re having a good day, so for our people to get out and see smiling faces and meet the people we meet... it’s a good thing for us too.”

Smith said the executive board tried to figure out how to do it safety. They talked about bringing a truck out, but couldn't make it work.

“We decided we would go virtual with it,” he said. “People signed up like they normally would, and then we set up a crew at our regional fire training school. We had Santa and his whole entourage there — all separate in different rooms.”

Smith said kids would call in and talk to an elf receptionist. Then, Mrs. Claus would pop in to surprise everybody.

“She would click everybody over to the big man and they could talk with Santa for five or six minutes,” he said. “Each call lasted about 10 minutes.”

Smith said the foundation was formed in 2012 so the firefighters union could raise more money for the different charities the members like to help, especially ones in town. It then took over Santa Express because it matched well with the foundation’s goal.

“It was just kind of one of those ideas that one of our guys, my wife and I had when we were sitting around,” Fairfield Fire Lt. Bob Smith said. “We said, ‘Well how can we bring some joy around the Christmas holiday?’ We figured we’d bring Santa around.”

Smith said the money raised during the Santa Express has gone to different causes over the years, but the Tommy Fund helped out friends of the department when their children were battling cancer.

“The Tommy Fund was actually started by a New Britain Firefighter back in the 50s,” he said. “No children should ever get cancer. Nobody should ever get cancer, but certainly not children.”

When the event first started 15 years ago, Smith said, there were just 15 families who got a visit from Santa on a firetruck.

“It’s grown exponentially over those last 14 years,” he said. “Last year we had 150 stops over a three-day period. We saw about 400 children and we raised $26,000 on that weekend.”

Smith said it has become one of the foundation’s biggest fundraisers, with more $75,000 donated to Tommy Fund in the last three years.

In a typical year, Smith said multiple crews escort different Santas to the homes of people who registered for visits. It usually costs $25 a visit, but Smith lowered it to $10 this year.

Sometimes, Santa would make an appearance at people’s parties where 50 to 60 children would be in attendance. The department would be sure to block out 25 to 30 minutes so Santa could sit and speak with all of the children there, Smith said.

People would take pictures and hand out presents, he said, adding that it has become an annual tradition for some families in town. This year, he said, about 50 kids called in.

“It’s not as large as it was,” he said. “Normally, we visit 150 different stops. It was a very small scale compared to what we normally do, but we did see a lot of the people that we normally see. It was nice to still bring a little Christmas joy to some of the families.”

Smith said the foundation should have a better idea about the money the event raised by the end of the week. While the price of admission was lower this year, he said, many families give more than the minimum.

“Light Up Fairfield” is another holiday-themed fundraiser the department started this year. Smith said the event will also benefit the Tommy Fund, noting 27 people registered for the house lighting competition.

They’ll go out and judge the participants, determining winners and runners-up.

“We really wanted to try to get the town involved,” Smith said. We figured it was a way to kind of bring the town together while staying safely apart.”

Smith said 2020’s Santa Express was way different than prior years but, it still went well. He said the foundation is looking forward to next year.

“Hopefully, things will be different than they are right now,” he said. “We can get back out there and make our 16th year bigger and better than ever.”

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com