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Mission: Santa Claus

[whitespace] Santa

We come, with the man in red, via chopper, bearing gifts of good cheer and buzzwords

By Michael Learmonth

We board the whirlybird, a six-seat Aerospatiale AS-350 at Aris Helicopters at San Jose International Airport. The invitation was simply too outlandish to refuse: take a helicopter ride to Agnews Developmental Center to deliver Christmas cheer with Santa Claus, a bunch of Rotarians, and two "at-risk" teens acting as Santa's helpers.

Steve Sullivan, CEO of Aris, has been pulling off this stunt with members of the Airport Rotary for eight years. Also along for the ride is Neal Hoffman, governor-elect of Rotary District 5517. Sitting on either side of me are Lyle Peterson and Selena Reyes, both 17-year-old Foothill High School students.

Lyle tells me he wants to go to culinary school when he graduates. Selena plans to enroll at Evergreen Valley College. It's the first time either Lyle or Selena has ever flown.

We buckle up. Neither Lyle nor Selena knows they are "at risk" until Sullivan begins going through the safety checklist. In the event of an emergency landing, Sullivan says, stay in the helicopter until the rotors stop. If you do have to get out, walk toward the front of the helicopter. The rear rotor catches people "all too often in this business," he says.

Sullivan starts up the engines. In just a minute the whining turbine behind us will heat up to 1,382 degrees. Lyle slips JT the Bigga Figga into his Walkman to calm his nerves and shares the earphones with Selena.

We lift off and hang for a few seconds just a few feet off the ground. The sensation is more elevator than airplane.

We levitate above the airport and fly north, Santa riding shotgun. It's one of those blustery, deep-blue-sky days with just a little haze on the horizon. Downtown San Francisco is clearly visible, as are Great America, the 49ers' practice field and salt evaporation ponds in the Bay.

We circle Agnews twice and descend in a blizzard of lawn clippings. Lyle looks a little overwhelmed. "It was hellacool," he says of the ride, anxiously fidgeting with a few Polaroids he had taken with Santa before the trip.

Lyle and Selena look down at the gathered crowd as we land. Many are in wheelchairs. Some are cheering, clapping sporadically, or jumping up and down and waving with excitement. Their contorted faces wear the raw emotion of a year's worth of anticipation. Sheriff's deputies have the area cordoned off to keep ambulatory residents overcome with excitement from charging the helicopter.

Santa gets out and begins handing out gifts, white-gloved handshakes and hugs. Acting as Santa is Dave Murphy, a really good-natured Rotarian and stockbroker from Gilroy. Lyle and Selena carry huge blue bags of presents, one for each Agnews resident.

As we proceed into the wards to visit the sick and immobile residents, Pat Fox, a San Jose Rotarian and criminal defense attorney, explains the reason for taking the high schoolers out of class. "They're learning responsibility, social responsibility," she says.

Santa enters the first children's ward, a classroom, with a couple of hearty ho-hos. In some of the children's eyes there is the slight glimmer of recognition. Others sit slumped over their wheelchair trays or crane their necks and stare about blankly.

Justine gets a new hairclip, but one can't be sure if she's aware of it. Jimmy receives a velcro Raiders wallet and a plastic watch, but he just lies there and stares into an aquarium stocked with goldfish.

Santa gets to J.T., who cannot sit up and is fed through a tube. His bloodshot eyes never blink, and his tongue seems too big for his mouth. J.T. is getting a scalp massage from one of his caretakers, Frances Lobdell, a semi-retired occupational therapist.

"You may not think it, but there is a little bit of awareness," she says. "We know because they may have a little smile."

Lobdell says that for J.T., and other severely disabled Agnews residents like him, the constant battle is to provide some kind of sensory stimulation that brings even the slightest experience with consciousness.

"When we hug them and rub their heads, they are feeling it," Lobdell says. "There are things we can't know about them. You just assume by the expression on their faces."

Santa places J.T.'s gift next to him and moves on. J.T. and the other children in his ward will grow up and grow old at Agnews.

"There but for the grace of God go we," Fox says. "It could be a car accident, head injury or anything."

After a few hours, the ho-ho-ho fatigue starts to set in. "Do we have any Jack Daniels for Santa?" one helpful Rotarian pipes up.

Soon, it's time to get back in the helicopter and leave the place where everyone, young and old, is a child and everyone still believes in Santa.

Even Selena seems convinced. "Hey, Santa, can you drop me off on my roof?"

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From the December 31, 1997-January 7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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