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Christmas Wishes Shared During Surprise Elf Chats



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What do local children want for Christmas this year?

Three of Santa’s elves were allowed to reach out to local children this holiday season, thanks to a special arrangement between Newtown Youth & Family Services (NYFS) and the North Pole. Evergreen, Snowy, and Tinsel had virtual chats earlier this month with a few dozen children, who learned about the life of an elf and shared their Christmas wishes.

When the world slowed down this year, and many events needed to be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, NYFS Executive Director Candice Bohr and others needed to pivot and rethink the annual Holiday Festival. As the largest annual fundraiser for the Sandy Hook-based nonprofit youth service bureau and mental health clinic, the majority of the festival’s regular events depend on large, in-person crowds.

While the Festival of Trees was still presented this month — in a venue with more room than in recent years, with very limited in-person hours and additional online viewing — organizers came up with a few new ideas for this year's festival. Among them was Elf Chats: Live From The North Pole.

Parents were asked to donate to NYFS. In exchange, they could arrange for a virtual 10-minute call between up to four children and one of the elves hosted by NYFS.

Parents also provided NYFS with some of the likes and dislikes of their children, suggested gifts, and other details, which made each chat completely personalized for the children, ages 1-11, who received the surprise calls.

The Elf Chats took place December 6-12, with morning sessions on the first and final days and evening sessions during the week. NYFS Event Coordinator Susan Smith and Marketing Coordinator Melissa Cercone began working during the middle of summer to make the new offering a success. They transformed one of the offices at the agency into Santa’s workshop, the setting for Elf Chats.

They wanted to make it look as real as possible to ensure that children had an experience they would remember, according to Bohr. The intention was to come up with new ideas that could spread holiday joy to the community “without being vulnerable to COVID restrictions and closures,” she said in November.

Through their video screens, children saw a workbench equipped with real tools and paint, shelves of toys, books, and games, and wrapped presents ready to be delivered.

Evergreen, who is 215 years old and likes to build snowmen and pet the reindeer when he is not making toys for Santa, was played by Eric D’Errico.

Snowy, whose backstory was that he is one of Santa’s number one elves who works on the conveyor belt area of the toy factory, was brought to life by Tain Gregory.

The third elf, Tinsel, turned 952 on November 7. She gained her elf name because her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather invented tinsel for the very first Christmas tree, said Samantha LaMendola, who brought that elf to life.

All three agree that the new Holiday Festival offering was a success.

“Kids are so stunned to see an elf, many of them are silent for the first five minutes,” LaMendola said between calls on December 12. “Then they talk, talk, talk,” she added, laughing.

Scooters and unicorns were among the most popular requests she received, she said.

“I received a request for a puppy, which was turned down by the parents,” she said December 16, recalling one of the more memorable of the 30 to 35 chats she did. “I said that Santa couldn’t carry puppies in his sleigh but hamsters are just fine.”

Avengers and Paw Patrol were the toys most of the children speaking with Snowy asked for. One girl asked for a magical penguin, however. That’s when Gregory’s acting skills went to work.

“I told her that the only magical penguin in the North Pole belongs to me, and his name is Nero the Magician,” Gregory said. “I then brought a conveniently placed penguin plush to the screen and just improvised from then on.”

Many children asked to speak with Santa, who was often “busy packing his sleigh in the other room,” D’Errico said.

“Another child asked me if I could be their new Elf on the Shelf next year,” he added.

Children receiving the surprise calls all seemed to enjoy them. D’Errico felt the Elf Chats “definitely made their nights.” Gregory said the kids “seemed to really like my elfish antics,” and LaMendola said that while children were initially “a little shocked,” once they got over that they thought her Tinsel “was so silly.”

LaMendola cannot wait, she said, to return for 2021.

“I had such a fun time playing her,” she said of her elf alter ego. “I can’t wait to do it again next year.”

Bohr has reportedly already invited her three elves to return.

Tinsel (Samantha LaMendola) laughs with some children during an Elf Chat on December 12. The new offering from Newtown Youth & Family Services was a very popular addition to the Holiday Festival earlier this month. —Bee Photo, Hicks
Candice Bohr gives the two-minute mark to Samantha LaMendola on December 12, when LaMendola was doing Elf Chats for Newtown Youth & Family Services. —Bee Photo, Hicks
Trumbull resident Olivia Farrell, shown with her father, Daniel, was one of the children surprised with an NYFS Elf Chat this holiday season. —photo courtesy Newtown Youth & Family Services
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