Published November 23, 2013 by Phil Davis/South Jersey Times
CAMDEN — With the holiday season right around the corner, the Camden Children’s Garden brought in the joyous spirit with a visitor from the North Pole on Saturday.
The garden has already set its sights on an extravagant holiday season, with parades and brunches with Santa Claus himself all planned for the next few weeks at the Riverside property.
On Saturday, old Saint Nick himself was at the children’s center to make his list and check it twice as families gave their children a chance to tell Santa what they want to see underneath their tree on Dec. 25.
The man behind the glasses, big bushy beard and red coat listening to the children’s wishes was not necessarily a rotund, ageless man who resides at the North Pole.
Jeff Clarke, a 57-year-old Maple Shade resident, has donned the red suit for over 20 years and has been the Camden Children’s Garden’s Santa ever since the park opened over a decade ago.
Originally, Clarke worked at a meat-packing company and had only thought about dressing up as Santa after noticing him at the Moorestown Mall. If it wasn’t for being terminated from his previous job, he might have never become the bringer of joy that he has been for over two decades.
“I got fired from my job on Dec. 3. I went back (to the Moorestown Mall) and asked ‘Do you need a Santa?’ and they said ‘Sure,’” said Clarke.
Clarke has worked at a number of locations as Santa, including the Moorestown Mall and G-Boys Garden and Christmas Center, in Marlton.
But he said that he’s had his best time being a big, fat man while working at the Camden Children’s Garden.
“When I started here at the garden, I realized how much I enjoyed working with kids,” said Clarke. “With Santa Claus, you’re the man.”
He said he gets more time to interact with the children that end up sitting on his lap, as the garden does not have Clarke operating at the same frantic pace that shopping malls did.
The Maple Shade resident has seen his fair share of children over the years. He said he routinely has parents who end up apologizing for their children and others who are simply too shy to speak to him.
“It doesn’t matter whether you just got done with a cranky kid. You have to put your smile back on,” said Clarke, who added he could understand why some children were apprehensive about the idea of sitting on a large man’s lap.
“For a lot of them, you’re asking them to sit a stranger’s lap after teaching them the exact opposite,” said Clarke.
For all of the awkward moment of kids simply staring at him or simply being rude to him, he said he’s had just as many heartwarming stories to look back on.
He’s had children who have parents fighting wars overseas and others who have just been struck by tragedy who are looking for a common, seasonal thread to bring back some sense of familiarity.
One story has stuck with him in particular, even after more than 20 years in the suit.
Clarke said he once noticed two young girls who were waiting in line for their chance to meet him when their parents came to talk with him personally.
The family was still recovering after their home had burnt down earlier that year and the parents asked Clarke to simply give their children some of the holiday joy.
When they got to the front of the line, Clarke said he couldn’t have predicted what happened next.
“So I asked them ‘What would you like for Christmas?’ They both looked up and said ‘Nothing,’” said Clarke. “(They said) ‘Our house just burned down and we just want our mom and dad to be happy.”
It’s those kinds of random happenings that Clarke says has kept him in his profession for so long.
He describes himself as a “glass half-full” kind of guy and one who always has a sunny disposition.
It’s a personality that comes through in the way he talks, often smiling as he remembers his time playing Santa. And it’s something that even he admits is something that’s not limited to when he’s wearing the suit.
“Even my boss tells me ‘You can’t be Santa all the time,’” said Clarke.
Link to original source: http://www.nj.com/camden/index.ssf/2013/11/santa_claus_visits_camden_childrens_garden.html