Stories: The Santa Expedition...
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|The Santa Expedition
By Elder Robert B. Skankey
Bangkok, Thailand, 1984. I was serving in the Samrong district in the southern part of Bangkok as the District Leader and a trainer. I was approaching the final few months of my mission and was finally becoming comfortable with the language. As most missionaries, I had developed a great love and appreciation for the Thai people. Although I was coming from a position of much more education and means, I had learned so much from their simple and happy lives. As a matter of fact I feel they taught me more than I taught them.
My hometown Bishop had established a program for all our serving missionaries in the ward to receive $100 near Christmas time to be used in humanitarian pursuits in our areas. He would then expect a report on how the funds were used. My first Christmas distribution was primarily used on individual needs. We would come across a beggar who seemed particularly needy and would buy them food, drink and/or other items that they may be in need of. This way I didn’t just arbitrarily drop a few baht into their can, but was able to talk to them while we walked to the nearest raan (small restaurant) or store. I kept a log of all the fund’s usage so I could pass it along to the ward in my periodic letters. $100 goes a long way in a country like Thailand so I actually had leftover funds when I received my next installment from the bishop.
Upon receiving it I felt impressed that I needed to do something more than I had done in the past, I needed to do something that would affect a larger section of the people and was within our capabilities as missionaries. I was particularly interested in helping kids (Half the pictures I took from my mission were of the kids I came across as a missionary). They were always so interested in us and seemed so pure. They had all been dealt a challenging economic hand by being born in a third world country, but always seemed so thankful for life and so strong. I wanted to do something for them. Although Thailand is a primarily Buddhist culture, we came up with the idea to do a visit from Santa Claus. We decided to search for a place where the kids would be most needy. Most of the Bangkok I served in was very low income, however, the understanding among the missionaries was that a particular place called Khlong Doey was the slum of the slums of Bangkok. This was out of our area (Yanawa District) so we had to get permission to travel there from the Mission President, which he graciously allowed. I tasked the Yanawa Elders to find a small corner of the slums that would fit our purposes. I knew we could not get a gift for every child in Khlong Doey but maybe if there was a small isolated section somewhere we could slip in, do the Santa thing, and slip out without leaving anyone disappointed. The Elders reported that they had a perfect place so the “Santa Expedition” was on.
The first thing we needed was a Santa suit. The left over funds from last year were about enough to pay for a tailored suit, leaving the rest for gifts. Then we needed a Santa. As the district leader and the trainer for my greenie, I made a command decision and assigned my companion, Elder Holbrook, to the duties. He was a good sport and gladly accepted the challenge. It was quite enjoyable explaining to a local tailor what we were doing and what we wanted the suit to look like. He quickly caught the spirit of the plan and excitedly began preparing the suit, white, fluffy beard included.
As a district we discussed what type of gifts we would be handing out. The most economical would be to hand out candy. But, I had envisioned the kids receiving something that they could keep that would remind them of our visit. We finally settled on a little of both. We would make small Christmas bags of candy that had a small trinket or animal figure as well as small individual toys like a rubber ball or other kind of simple item.
The day came for us to start collecting all the toys. We visited a few toy stores that I knew of around Bangkok. We ended at our local toy shop. One of my fondest memories was watching the face of the store owner as we walked into his store with more money than he sees in three months, ready to buy just about everything he was selling. At first I scrutinized every purchase, however, it soon turned into a shelf clearing event where we literally pushed everything on many of his shelves into our bags. As this was happening I noticed some toys that seemed broken or not worth purchasing were making their way into our bags. I particularly remember one little baby doll with raggedy hair, dirty pink coloring with no clothes, and missing an arm. I remember thinking to myself that I needed to remove that before we went out. When completed, we left the very happy store owner as we headed back to our apartment to prepare the bags and toys for the big day.
Christmas Eve came and we made our final preparations. We filled three pillow cases full of small gift bags and a few simple toys like small soccer balls, toy animals, toy swords, dolls, etc. After a district prayer for a little divine help, we were on our way. As Santa and his elves (missionaries and church members) left our neighborhood, he handed out gifts to the local kids. They were all very grateful.
We hopped on several busses as we made our way to Khlong Doey. It was quite enjoyable to see the looks Santa received from the Thais. As usual, they were full of big smiles. We met the Yanawa Elders along the way and they guided us to our destination. As we walked single file down a small maze of narrow, dirty alleyways I felt anxious that the “expedition” would meet our expectations and make a difference. Finally, we broke out into a clearing encircled by ramshackle houses made of scrap wood and tin roofs, with a field of patchy, uncut green grass, an even coating of trash, and crisscrossed by old abandoned railroad tracks. As I looked around my first impression was, “there is no one here.” But, almost immediately after Santa Claus came out of the alleyway I began to see a few kids appear, all making a beeline for Santa’s red suit. I thought to myself, “Let the games begin.”
At first, Santa was able to hand out the gifts by himself, but soon the kids multiplied by the hundreds and we had to split the pillowcases up to avoid Santa being overrun. It became quite hectic for a while as the kids (and some adults) seemed to know exactly why Santa was there and were hoping to get their gifts. I was handing out some of the gift bags when one of the church members, Damie, grabbed my pillowcase with concern in his eyes and said we needed to get out of here before we got overwhelmed. He started walking toward the exit, handing out gifts while I followed. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my hip and there was a young kid looking up at me with big brown eyes holding my scripture bag. He quickly handed me my bag (which not only held my scriptures, but my camera as well) which I had totally forgot about with a smile. I thanked him profusely and made sure he received a gift.
As we slowly made our way toward the exit I noticed a little girl who seemed to be literally glowing with joy at the gift she had received. She was facing away from me, yet I could feel her excitement just by seeing the aura of light that surrounded her. It made me wonder what gift she had received that could be so precious, so I moved around her to see what she was holding. There, in her little arms was that little baby doll with raggedy hair and no arm that I had meant to throw away. I looked at the little girl’s face, radiant with happiness and appreciation for receiving this small gift. It made me feel so ungrateful for all the blessings that I have received, that I take for granted and for which I never thank my Heavenly Father. Here was a little girl so grateful for what I considered trash. I have never forgotten that shameful feeling I had and that valuable lesson I learned that day.
As we made our way out of the field I noticed the crowds start to thin out. As I left the field into the alleyway as the last one of our party, I noticed that it appeared that everyone who was walking away had received a gift. Maybe with a little divine intervention, we had successfully brought a little Christmas cheer to all those we had visited.
As we entered our neighborhood with empty bags, feeling quite satisfied at our outing, we were met by some of the kids that we always play with. They had not been there when we left so had missed out on any gifts from Santa. As a way of showing that Santa had no more toys in his bags, he dug into them to show that we had nothing left when, to our surprise, Santa pulled out just enough toys to give a gift to each one there. They all thanked us and went about playing with their toys. To this day I am not sure where those gifts came from.
It was clear to me that we had a little help from above on this ambitious missionary outing. I also learned how much I have to be thankful for. I try and count my blessings every day.
- I will add some pictures of this event under the "pictures" link on this website.
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