Fort Stewart family uses unique holiday tradition to help children with deployed parents
December 23, 2009
FORT STEWART, Ga. -- In this season of joy, hope and giving, Earl and Debe Austin are transformed into characters that are larger than life and equally as fun to portray.
The Austins spend the holiday season cheering up children and adults as their alter egos - Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.
According to Debe, a contracting officer in the Mission and Contracting Command's Fort Stewart Directorate of Contracting, the couples journey to becoming the Claus began in 1985.
"I volunteered my husband to be Santa in a Christmas Parade because they needed someone," Debe said, knowing her husband would always volunteer where he was needed and a special moment he often shared with others.
A 4-year-old Earl joined his mother on a trip to Meridian, Miss. to a shopping center where Santa came to visit in a homemade sleigh with live reindeer.
"That made an impression on him. A grown man was willing to put on a Santa suit and spread a little Christmas cheer to kids," Debe said. Over the years, he said he realized that was a special gift, one he could give back to others as well.
Starting out in a borrowed outfit, Earl was transformed into Santa and has been spreading cheer ever since. Fifteen years later, he asked Debe to join the sleigh as Mrs. Claus. More of a behind the scenes person, at first Debe was a bit reluctant and declined. In time she changed her mind.
"Santa is persistent," she said with a chuckle. "When Santa first started, he wore a pad," she said.
"He was a solid 145 pounds soaking wet. He has gained some weight from all the milk and cookies and doesn't require any padding anymore." The Austins/Claus' often spend the pre-Christmas period participating in parades or making appearances at nursing homes, schools, church Christmas functions and office parties and even visited a Tattoo parlor.
The tattoo parlor had been conducting fundraisers to help a local child combating a degenerative bone disease. Debe said they asked Santa for help and he said yes. The result was Santa on the back of a motorcycle for charity.
Occasionally they are even invited into private homes.
"Last night we were supposed to see two children in the home of a close friend. Well word got around and it ended up being 14," Debe said. "A lot of times we're invited into homes to take photos with new born babies by the families' Christmas tree."
From tattoo parlors to private homes, the Austin's adventures have run the gamut including wide-eyed children in awe of Santa to hug and kisses for Mrs. Claus and even a confession now and then.
"Sometimes when the kids are shy; he'll touch their nose with his finger because he is "high-tech" now and can download things about them," Debe said. "Santa asked one little boy after touching his nose if there was something he needed to tell Santa. The little boy said no but Santa pressed a couple more times and the little boy told Santa that he saw his mommy kissing the neighbor."
Four Santa and three Mrs. Claus suits later, the couple see themselves providing Christmas joy for as long as possible.
"Santa and I especially enjoy opportunities to be the first Santa a child gets their picture made with," Debe said. "Last year, Santa got to visit with the kids on Fort Stewart and their parents, some of which had just returned from deployments.
"This year Santa and Mrs. Claus are spending some time with kids of deployed parents. We enjoy the opportunity to serve in some small way to help dreams come true for kids and the big kids enjoy fun with Santa too."