By Barb Zanetti
Photos by Dennis Zanetti
The Second Annual Christmas program for disadvantaged children faced many obstacles.
Its Santa, a driving force, died in August. The weather for the morning of Dec. 17 was accurate: high winds, chilly temperatures, and rain. And the planning group had had only three weeks to prepare for an anticipated 200 children and their parents.
The odds for its success were slim.
McAllen Elks Lodge #1402 members and Winter Texans from Alamo Rec-Veh Park and Alamo Palms RV Resort decided to give it their best effort.
It began with Elk Exalted Ruler Milly Hernandez renaming this year’s event in Tripp Wright’s honor.
“He was our Santa. He came up with the idea for the program and pushed SO hard to make it a reality,” she said. “Tripp’s Christmas Village is his legacy, and he deserves it.”
Milly said she was skeptical that they would even get the first program going.
“He was so pushy to get the last-minute project started last year,” she said. “He was so gung ho. He said, ‘Milly, we’re going to make it happen’. And we did!”
When I saw him this summer he wasn’t doing so well. [For several years he fought brain cancer in his spine and was in severe pain.]
He told her: “Milly I’m going to make it ‘til December to play Santa for you.” She said he was that passionate about the children’s party.
In his memory, his friends from both the Elks and Winter Texan parks rolled up their sleeves and pitched in to try to make this year’s event more successful than last year’s despite having little time to get everything done.
Head Elf Colleen Benoit took the reins to coordinate a one-morning shopping trip for toys. She also organized toy sorting at the Lodge by gender and age.
“It was different this year,” she said. “We didn’t want children to get the same toy they had last year, so fellow elf Mary Lou Kennedy suggested we allow each child to choose one of three gifts. That required adding a few more helper elves, but the children seemed to love having a choice. And it’s always fun to see happy kids.”
Others helped coordinate cookie decorating stations, craft and puzzle tables, and large game set-ups, as well as serving hot chocolate and a chili dog lunch. In addition, babysitter “guides” escorted children whose parents needed to leave for a couple of hours to Christmas shop.
Mark Norman, one of Tripp’s best friends, did his part by donning Tripp’s plush Santa suit.
Many agreed Tripp left a big suit to fill, literally, saying he was a BIG guy. Winter Texan Mary Lou Kennedy did her best to take up the slack with hundreds of stitches. That helped take care of the resizing issue.
But Mark doubted anyone could match Tripp’s Christmas spirit.
The new red-suited gentleman said he did his best.
“I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky guy,” Mark said. “I tried to make sure the kids’ expectations were fulfilled. That’s the thrill of it all for me.”
According to Mark, the key to being Santa is … “You walk in with a smile and just be a cheerful ole’ fat man.”
And he added that he hopes he helped to play a part in fulfilling his friend Tripp’s dream on Saturday.
Reflecting on the morning, Mark said, “Most of the children wanted their pictures taken with me. A lot of the younger ones were wanting hugs. I thought it went very, very well.”
Milly believes that this year’s event was exactly what Tripp was hoping for… happy and smiling children, a very successful program despite the weather obstacles.
“Next year we’ll take it to another level for sure,” she said. “I have to top it every year. Tripp wanted it that way.”
She said she realized this year that many children who were eligible to come to the event probably couldn’t afford transportation to get to the Lodge. Her challenge for next year is to get busing from the schools or another source so children and their families from areas such as Alamo, San Juan, Pharr, and Mission all have the opportunity to attend.
Mrs. Santa, Tripp’s wife Maggie Biedekapp, said Tripp would have been pleased with the entire program.
“The Christmas program for kids meant so much to him,” she said. “He was a big kid himself. He liked to laugh and giggle. He liked presents (not getting them) but giving gifts to other people.”
Playing Santa suited him. It all fit with his love for children.
“No matter where we were, if there was a kid ahead of us in line, he would wave at them, play peek-a-boo,” she said. “If he saw a child without hair at MD Anderson, he’d take his hat off and show the kid his bald head.”
According to Maggie, Tripp would have thought that renaming the Christmas program after him was “precious.”
“He would have been really pleased and honored,” she said. “And he would have been glad they’re planning to make it bigger and bigger every year. For him, it was all about the kids.”
In Tripp’s honor, Alamo Rec-Veh Parks Helping Hands made a donation to Tripp’s Christmas Village. Other Winter Texan groups and individuals are welcome to volunteer or contribute to next year’s program by contacting coordinator Milly Hernandez at (956) 424-5016.