WASHINGTON -- Todd Bishop started playing Santa Claus a couple years ago as a way to give back during the holidays, but things have changed quite a bit over the past year.
With mandatory physical distancing and mask usage in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bishop had to get a little more creative in sharing the holiday magic with youngsters.
"Santa Todd," as he's known, has gone virtual.
"This has actually been a silver lining sort of story," said Bishop, director of the business support office at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency. " … This has enabled me to find different ways that Santa Todd can raise charitable contributions."
Bishop has leveraged social media and video calls to facilitate more than two dozen virtual visits with children, as well as virtual photos with Santa in coordination with a non-profit organization called Gold in Fight, a foundation dedicated to serving families in need due to hardships caused by pediatric cancer.
He works closely with parents to plan the visits, learning about the children in advance to help personalize the experience. Even something small like knowing the kid's name before making a FaceTime call can really make a difference.
"Having that information ahead of time, it helps create the magic," Bishop said. "Sometimes I'll have the parents hide a gift or a treat for the kid somewhere in the house then I, as Santa, can direct them to it. There's amazement there, like 'how in the heck did he do that?'"
"I usually conspire with the Elf on the Shelf whose name I also know going into the call," he laughed.
Along with personalized virtual visits and photos, Santa Todd has participated in a Facebook Live event for a local charter school and recorded a video reading a children's book for a military unit in Germany. He also was interviewed for a podcast that aired on Dec. 21, 2020.
The feedback from parents and, obviously, children has been overwhelmingly positive.
One of those parents, Army Maj. Zachary Patterson, who works with Bishop as deputy director of USAMMA's BSO, said it was a great way to leverage technology and stay safe while having some fun with his 3-year-old daughter.
"It was a good opportunity for us to still have the magical Santa experience without potentially exposing ourselves to an environment that may or may not be safe," Patterson said, like visiting a mall Santa, for example.
"It worked out even better actually," he added. "We were able to send our daughter's letter to Santa, and he was able to open it during the call. It's a way he can further personalize the experience."
Bishop hopes his efforts not only raise donations, but also spread some much-needed holiday joy.
"I think people need it, especially [now]," he said.
(C.J. Lovelace is assigned to U.S. Army Medical Logistics Command.)