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Sunday, March 3, 2024
It takes a village to create a Virtual Santa

How NOTL's Tim Taylor adapted his Santa persona for the virtual world to raise money for palliative care

This story is a very personal tale. It is also the story of how a small group of talented local people worked together to save a little piece of Christmas and support a wonderful local service organization, NOTL Palliative Care.

It was really the pandemic that gave momentum to the need for a Santa who could visit families without going into their homes.

Without the pandemic, I would have continued my normal December practice of donning a classic red suit and visiting local homes and gatherings as good old St. Nick, in return for a volunteer contribution to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Palliative Care Service.

For me, it was magic. And for many of the young children I visited, it was magic, too. Far more intimate than going to the mall.

But the pandemic was disquieting to some would-be hosts, many of whom had invited Santa into their homes or businesses for many Christmases past.

Throughout the fall, as the second wave took hold, I fretted over how to save the Santa visit tradition, one so important to a growing list of young families and, frankly to my own sense of Christmas. Not to mention the donations raised in support of palliative care.

I’ve been portraying Santa Claus for over a decade, first in Toronto, where my work colleagues couldn’t resist engaging me, in a red suit rented at Malabar’s Costumes, as the annual Christmas party bon vivant.

For the last five years I’ve spread as much cheer as possible, spending my December, here in Niagara, raising voluntary donations to palliative care.

I happen to have two useful prerequisites for the role — I sport a full, white beard and a big round belly. My father always told me: “Use the skills and attributes you have.”

A quick review of YouTube showed the notion of virtual Santa visits was gaining acceptance. But as a self-acknowledged technology luddite, I did not really know how to begin.

My first and probably smartest notion was to follow in the footsteps of Music Niagara, which had developed a pandemic partnership with the faculty and students in the Niagara College broadcast program, creating postable videos of the festival's socially distanced concerts.

The collaboration helped Music Niagara transition to a comprehensive season of online programming and staved off many of the harms of the pandemic.

My only current connection to Niagara College was a friend, John Scott, a former chair of the college’s board of directors, and an active and engaged resident of the old town.

“Through my six years associated with the college,” says Scott, “I really became familiar with the capabilities of the broadcast program. It didn’t take long to get overwhelmed by what the faculty and students could do.”

More importantly, says Scott, the college is always searching for ways to work with the community. “If there is something that makes good sense in working with a local business or community group, I’ll tell you, they are all ears.”

Scott knew exactly what I needed, rather who I needed, at the college, as soon as I asked for help.

He knew Peter “Dutch” VandenBerg, a program co-ordinator and teacher in the broadcasting program — radio, television, film of the college’s School of Media – would help me wade into the confusing online world.

VandenBerg has been coaching/teaching students at the college for 11 years. A former Niagara College broadcast student himself, coming back to the school after some years in the private sector was an easy transition. His mother had also been on the faculty in continuing education.

Scott describes VandenBerg as having a quiet enthusiasm and a self-deprecating humour, a description demonstrated when I asked him to explain what he does at the school: “I get paid to watch TV for a living.”

More seriously, he describes his role as a locksmith. “My job in life is to unlock the potential of the students I teach, the full value they can bring to the industry I love.”

VandenBerg and his co-producer on many projects like these, Carly Root, a special events adviser in the office of the president, hatched a plan to create one or more promotional videos that would be posted on the internet to attract families to the new “Virtual Santa.”

As co-producers, the two encouraged a number of senior broadcast students to submit ideas on how to make Virtual Santa come to life in film. After receiving a number of proposals, they chose a producer and director and six additional students to make it happen.

Root, a 14-year veteran of Niagara College, is a project manager, a kind of jack-of-all-trades. Her official title is co-ordinator of the office of the president.

In practice, when special events such as COVID-inspired online convocations or VIP visits come along, Root is the one often called on to make sure the events come off without a hitch.

“I love projects like Virtual Santa,” Root says. “Without the projects the community brings to us, we would be limited to the scope of the internal projects. We would lose important networking opportunities.”

Fast-forward 10 days or so. The student crew had conceived, written, filmed and edited three separate short videos celebrating the arrival of a local Virtual Santa: one to demonstrate how a Virtual Santa visit would work, one to showcase our beautiful pre-Christmas town and one to highlight the valuable work of the local palliative care organization.

Three distinct stories packed into less than four minutes and 30 seconds.

To describe me, as the focal point of these videos, as a fish out of water, would be a massive understatement.

It was only thanks to the efforts of student producer Sabrina Croteau and her crew that the videos captured the essence, even the joy, of what Virtual Santa could bring. I just did what I was told, but it often took a few takes.

Croteau is just finishing her third and final year of studies. She’s been involved in a number of internal and externally inspired projects in her time at the college.

“I found this one interesting because it gave us a lot of creative freedom,” says Croteau. “Little direction up front.

“Dutch asked us for ideas – storyboards – showing how we would do it, what the video would look like. I chose the crew from the volunteers.”

Croteau was also chosen to work on the collaborative Music Niagara concerts this past summer. She’s gone on, through the fall, to work with the non-profit in editing and social media marketing.

But she’s unsure of what she will do post-graduation in just a few months. “I love production, being there from start to finish. I would also like to be in audio for the Leafs or Raptors games. But it doesn’t look very easy to get started right now.”

VandenBerg is obviously proud of his students and the program.

“This was a great win. The kids didn’t know what to expect, but that was part of the magic: In the middle of the pandemic to find a sense of holiday spirit. It's stuff you can’t teach in a class.”

Root turns the praise around. “The passion that you saw in the students comes from the leadership that Dutch offers. They wouldn’t be nearly as engaged as they are without Dutch’s leadership. It’s contagious. He just oozes pride for his students.”

With the promotional videos in hand and posted online, Virtual Santa needed help to create the look and feel — the “set” — for the online visits and to learn a lot about how to engage and manage a Zoom communication.

Enter a gaggle of local friends and family, much smarter than I am in the world of set design, lighting, computers and such.

My first call was to Adrian Goldberg, a local for the past 20 years or so, and somewhat of a guru in the international world of lighting for broadcast. He is, or has been, a lighting consultant for over 400 projects on five continents. He is currently consulting with the federal government on a 10-year project for the complicated lighting requirements of the resurrection of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

Early on, Goldberg and his wife, Syme Jago, came to visit the soon-to-become “North Pole,” with lighting and decorations by the box load. Between them, and Mrs. Claus (my wife Kathy), they converted our simple living room into what would be Virtual Santa’s online home for almost a month.

And after what seemed like dozens of Zoom rehearsals with anyone willing to play the part, we were ready to make our first virtual visit.

For me, beyond the joy that comes from seeing the children’s eyes, the most rewarding part of this year’s Santa’s visits was being a part of a team of people with the talents, energy, ingenuity and creativity to make it all happen.

The feeling will stay with me for many more Christmases to come.


Where to see Santa

For more information about the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Palliative Care Service or to donate, go to: www.notlpc.com.

Here are links to the Santa for Palliative Care videos:

* See Santa in his hideaway and how a video call happens at https://vimeo.com/488140798

* Get a glimpse of the magic of Santa’s Christmas in Niagara at https://vimeo.com/488141752

* Learn about palliative care and the wonderful work the organization does at https://vimeo.com/488141557


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