In the winter of 1988, Brenda Lloyd-Jones was attending a seminar at the Rudisill Regional Library in north Tulsa when she heard a young girl asking her mother if they could go see Santa at the mall across town. Citing the distance and the rising cost of gasoline, the mother regretfully said, "no."
The child’s heartbreak was palpable for Lloyd-Jones, and she wondered why there were no opportunities to visit Santa in north Tulsa.
Just a few months earlier, Lloyd-Jones and her friend Tara Ravnell Bradley had formed The Mothers Group Inc. as a way for mothers to gather and support each other by sharing information on parenting, employment and maintaining balance while expanding friendship among the members’ children. They saw a lack of educational resources for moms and wanted their group to fill that void.
Remembering the little girl, Lloyd-Jones and her group created The Santa Community Project in 1989 as a multi-cultural holiday celebration in north Tulsa.
Initially, the party took place at Rudisill Library. It was standing room only, and they outgrew the facility within a few years.
"Children were wrapped around the building waiting for us to open the doors, so that’s when we knew we had found a niche," says Lloyd-Jones, who is currently the associate chair of the Tulsa-based Department of Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma. "We knew this was something that was wanted by the community and we were able to deliver."
Since that day 25 years ago, The Santa Community Project has grown exponentially. Now held in the spacious Greenwood Cultural Center, it has attracted more than 15,000 children and has given away approximately 600 books a year since its inception. The event serves all Tulsans and is free to attend.
As the Santa Community Project evolved, three initiatives emerged to meet community needs.
First, the women wanted to empower children through education.
The Mothers Group Inc. is a diverse and talented group of women in a variety of careers including law, medicine and social work. Although their backgrounds vary, they share the understanding that reading to young children improves their future school performance.
Children are encouraged to sign up for a library card at the event and to enter drawings for free educational magazines.
And instead of toys, each child receives a new, beautifully wrapped book.
"Many of these children are accustomed to second-hand, hand-me-down items, and we thought, ‘Why not put an emphasis on education?’" Lloyd-Jones says. "They can write their own name in a brand-new book."
Madison Gradney, a 16-year-old student at Memorial High School, attended the event with her church throughout most of her elementary school years. She recalls fondly how groups from all over the city came to the celebration. Gradney says the highlight of the event was always getting a special book.
"Every year I would ask for a Junie B. Jones book," she says. "It was always something all of us kids looked forward to."
The second initiative was to have a black Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus to embody Santa’s compassion, generosity and kindness in a more inclusive way. Equally significant was the need to reinforce the harmonious union between Santa and Mrs. Claus.
"We include Mrs. Claus so that it gives another perspective," Lloyd-Jones says. "It completes the picture. We are communicating a healthy message of partnership."
Michael Pierce, the official Santa of The Santa Community Project, takes great pride in his role. In addition to training for the physical exertion of lifting hundreds of children during the event, he also studies Spanish so he can communicate with more attendees.
"I was 21 years old before I actually saw a Santa Claus of color, and it was me," Pierce laughs as he recalls a stunt from his fraternity days. "The main purpose here is to make the children comfortable. If Santa speaks their language, regardless of the color of their skin, it’s going to have a positive impact."
The third initiative is family fellowship. The Santa Community Project aims to provide a tradition that helps families build healthy memories.
"We are consistent in a time and community where many children feel a sense of abandonment," Lloyd-Jones says. "People don’t always show up. People don’t necessarily keep their promises. The Mothers Group has been consistent."
The women delight in seeing generation after generation return each year. Many of the organizers’ adult children come in from out of town and bring their own children to see Santa.
Sheila Shields, who moved to Tulsa in 1993, finds joy in the familial atmosphere that has grown from The Santa Community Project. Shields was working as a graduate assistant for Lloyd-Jones when she first learned of the event.
"This is not only a sisterhood, but a brotherhood, and a familyhood," Shields says. "The spouses are involved, and we’ve created wonderful friendships that carry on outside the event."
Lights, camera, action
Although the books and time with Santa Claus are highlights for the kids, parents appreciate the complimentary snapshot that documents the happy moment. High-quality photos have been a priority since the project’s inception.
"When I see the parents walking out so proud with the picture, that’s when I know we’ve done a great job," Lloyd-Jones says.
Each year, nearly 30 acts perform for the enthusiastic crowd. The shows expose kids to new possibilities in the community.
"It’s an opportunity to see martial arts, musicians or dancers up close in a way they might never have been able to before, so they realize that they can do that too," Shields says.
Behind the scenes
Planning for the massive event begins each year in July. Countless hours are spent sorting books, calling donors and handing out flyers.
Tangie Jones-Ballard, the group’s newly elected president, believes the members’ diligence has built trust and momentum in the community.
"We hand-deliver over 15,000 flyers to Tulsa Public Schools every year, and because they get to know us personally they look forward to getting our flyers," she says.
But book donations are just one part of the effort.
"We couldn’t do this without our volunteer members and our donors — our generous donors, who provide funds so we can purchase books, rent the facility and provide bright, beautiful 5 x 7 photos," she says.
Local attorney and author Hannibal Johnson is a longtime supporter. He says The Mothers Group Inc. is fulfilling a need that no one else is.
"This is a community-building event," Johnson says. "What these women do year after year is truly amazing."
From here to eternity
However the event changes in the future, the women behind the scenes agree that their goal is maximum impact.
"This group stays focused and consistent on their mission and it’s very straightforward," Pierce says. "Every parent goes away pleased."
"We hope to continue the tradition, and then see our children continue the tradition," Jones-Ballard says. "As we grow, we hope to get more exposure in the community."
A job well done
Many who have experienced The Santa Community Project share the sentiment that it brings out the best in the community.
"I am always given a sense of hope that we are doing good work, collaborating with people who have good hearts," Lloyd-Jones says. "That’s what I leave with. This is quite fulfilling."
"You just wonder," Jones-Ballard says, "who really gets the blessing?"
The Santa Community Project
9 a.m.-noon, Dec. 6, Greenwood Cultural Center, 322 N. Greenwood Ave.
For more information about The Mothers Group Inc. or The Santa Community Project, visit www.themothersgroup.org.