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aa Elks Taking a Train Ride webBy Barb Zanetti
Photos by Dennis Zanetti

Winter Texan Tripp Wright loved Christmas celebrations for children, especially for those who were disadvantaged. Three years ago, he begged leaders of his McAllen’s Elk Lodge 1402 to host a party for them.

The parameters of his Christmas wish were simple: Offer disadvantaged children a wonderful party. And, by the way, make it a yearly affair. Oh … and you’ll need to make it bigger and better every year.

It was his dream. His hope. And now it has become his legacy thanks to dedicated Elk members and a group of Winter Texans from Alamo Rec-Veh Park and Alamo Palms RV Resort.

Its Beginnings

aa Elks Three santas. One suit webOrganized after Thanksgiving three years ago, the party’s first timeline allowed the Elks and Winter Texans only a few weeks to buy gifts, plan a lunch, decide on activities, and invite children.

“It did get done,” District Deputy Grand Exalted Ruler Milly Hernandez said. “I told Tripp it would.”

She said that it wasn’t as grandiose as he had envisioned, but that it was a beginning. And she felt Tripp appreciated their efforts.

Tripp didn’t survive to see the second party, but in his memory, Milly named the event: “Tripp’s Christmas Village.”

Its Third Celebration

This year was even better than last year, according to Milly, who promised Tripp this event would not only happen, but would continue to grow.

“If you saw the laughter, the cheer, the chaos at this year’s party -- that’s what Tripp liked,” she said. “We felt he was with us. And we knew that he was so happy that we were all here [doing what he wanted us to do] …”

Its Challenges

Behind the scenes, there were rather large challenges.

aa Elks Younger kids found webThe Elks needed at least $5,000 to cover the party’s lunch, gift buying and planned activities. But quite a bit of the funding wasn’t there.

The non-profit Elks Lodge had spent much of their funds preparing Thanksgiving dinner packages for disadvantaged families.

That meant Milly and the Lodge’s Exalted Ruler [ER] Tino Ordaz had to become resourceful.

To meet their unmet needs, they decided to reach out to Elks who had been members for decades.

“They not only contributed, but they chose to be part of the party,” she said.

After securing the funding, the organizers faced another daunting challenge -- to make this party bigger than ever.

Tino said he was looking for a bounce house to add something very special to the event when an Elk member told him she found someone who had an impressive train. Once the train was secured for the event, Tino decided to order a machine to make artificial snow, which he felt would enhance the outdoor scene.

Indoor Excitement

As children arrived at the “Christmas Village” this year, they were escorted to see Santa and to have their photos taken with him. Meanwhile, several adult elves stayed busy delivering age-appropriate gift bags to Santa for each child.

A total of 160 toy bags had been filled by more than a dozen Winter Texans a few nights before the Saturday party. Those large-sized, green bags imprinted with “Joy” were loaded with games, blankets, crayons and coloring books, pencils, socks, crocheted hats, scrunchies, candy, stuffed animals and plushies, with each item appropriate for the child’s age and gender.

Behind the Gift Buying

In charge of securing most of the gift buying for the bags was Winter Texan Colleen Benoit.

aa Elks Despite a large crowd webShe said it took her two movies – “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas” -- to order everything online between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. She said she got it done in her “two-movie” timeframe because she ordered at night while watching her Christmas favorites on her computer.

Before purchasing anything, she chose her themes: board games and stuffed animals.

“A lot of the board games stimulate their creativity, their minds,” she said. “You can always play a board game; you don’t need electricity or batteries. It’s hands-on. Plus, children are communicating with other kids when they play. It’s a win-win.”

According to Colleen, she had no doubt the children would love the stuffed critters.

“At the party, I saw a couple of girls who really liked the cat plushies,” she said. “They were hugging them! Even the boys seemed to like those. They laid their heads on them.”

As one of the elves assigned to bring the age-appropriate gift bags to Santa, Tripp’s wife Maggie said, “I was amazed and pleased at how excited and appreciative the kids were.”

She noted, too, that everyone there was in a good mood, even the adults.

After Visiting Santa

Children had much to do to keep them happy and busy. Organizers said rides on the train, which kept running throughout the event, and cookie decorating were two of the busiest activities that day. A third favorite was introduced by Winter Texan Peggy Fleming.

She donated many colored and iridescent beads (some with letters on them) and special accessories, as well as clasps and plastic string so children could make colorful necklaces, hair clips, key chains, and friendship bracelets with the help of volunteers.

Elks Santa sign webMilly said that next year she plans to add a second large “beading” table because the children really loved creating their own jewelry.

Many other choices were available for children to fill their time at the three-hour event. They could play a variety of games, create Christmas cards and tree ornaments, work on a variety of craft projects, and enjoy a hot dog lunch, complete with chips and juice or hot chocolate with their “creatively decorated” cookie for dessert.

After the Party

Volunteers said they have fond memories of the day. Many noted that the children’s smiles and excitement were reward enough for the hours they invested.

Peggy said that she still giggles remembering the young boy who slid off Santa’s lap, after sharing what he wanted for Christmas.

As the youngster began walking away, she said, he stopped. Turned. And then sprinted back to Santa, holding up one finger, saying excitedly, “Oh, Santa, one more thing!”

“Then the boy went to play a game, but before long he headed back toward Santa,” she said. “Almost there, he was holding up his finger again, saying, ‘And one more thing!’ as he shared his final wish with the jolly old man.”

The Tripp Effect

When Maggie heard this story, she said it would have tickled Tripp.

Some said they regret not getting to know Tripp. To them Milly said, “all they had to do was look around while at the party.”

“I asked those people, ‘Did you not see the spirit of him here?’” she said. “…All the kids? All those smiles? That’s Tripp!”

Maggie said that her husband’s goal was to reach more and more children. And she admitted that he would never be satisfied.

“He wanted to be assured that every child got something for Christmas,” Maggie said. “And that all of them enjoyed a party designed especially for them.”

aa Elks The Grinch Waves webShe said she appreciated the work and effort everyone put in.

“Tripp would have been so proud,” Maggie said. “He loved Christmas and felt every child deserved to love it, too.”

She recognized that poverty and disabilities can make life difficult for kids.

“Too often we knew that what we were doing for children were the only gifts they were going to get,” Maggie said. “So, Tripp joined the Elks feeling that this group was the perfect fit for his Christmas plan -- to reach as many disadvantaged children as humanly possible.”

To Be an Elk

Tino believed Tripp found the perfect organization for his goals and echoed Tripp’s sentiment.

“I became ER for the children,” he said of his leadership role. “What gives me hope is that more and more people are starting to understand what being an Elk really is… That there’s a purpose to becoming a member.”

According to Tino, it is crucial that members believe in charity.

My belief is always: “It’s better to give than to receive.”

The Exalted Ruler said that for him it’s truly a “blessing” to work on this event.

Looking Toward a Fourth Year

With the success of this year’s program, it doesn’t mean next year’s event will be easy, according to the organizers. Both Elks and Winter Texans recognize they will face challenges.

Along with many planning issues, Milly and Tino feel they must find transportation for children who can’t afford to get to McAllen’s Elks Lodge, along with trying to figure out ways to expand their facility to accommodate more children. And for them there’s always the task of raising funds to treat a larger number of children to activities and special gifts.

Organizers and volunteers say that without a doubt their energy and dedication to making Tripp’s Christmas Village a success is a tribute to their friend, who loved “ho-ho-ho”-ing his way into each child’s heart.

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