Kylee Labadie and her daughters started their Saturday with a visit to Santa and ended it almost in tears after a group of "elves" in Wallaceburg, Ont. worked some Christmas magic to make their wishes come true.
Forty children sat on St. Nick's lap and read off their holiday wish list at the Knights of Pythias Hall. It's a tradition that plays out in cities and towns across Canada — but this time the ritual was a little different.
Volunteers had a horse on standby
A woman wearing a knitted reindeer sweater with flashing lights sat at Santa's elbow, diligently writing down every child's requests in detail. Then the list was whisked away to a group of volunteers spread out at Canadian Tire locations and stores across the municipality who found exactly what each kid wanted and quickly wrapped it up.
"We were prepared for Xboxes and iPads and iPhones, toy trucks, Barbie houses," said local radio host Greg Hetherington, who helped organize the event. "We weren't sure if would get an ask for a real, live pony but we figured we better be ready for it — so we had a horse ready."
After their children left Santa, each parent was given a note telling them to pick up a gift bag at the Wallaceburg Canadian Tire, but when they arrived they "got a whole lot more," said Hetherington.
"I see the ladies coming up the aisle with presents wrapped and I'm like 'No way, this isn't happening,'" said Labadie. "Sure enough, when we got up there I had to fight back my tears. The moment was just, I'm even getting chills thinking about it, it was amazing."
As her daughters five-year-old Nathalie and four-year-old Amelie Roberge tore away the paper to find Shimmer and Shine and My Littlest Pet Shop toys, they shrieked with delight.
"I find it unbelievable," said Labadie. "Every person I saw I tell about it. It's definitely a pay it forward kind of thing."
She added her oldest daughter Jaidyn was watching the celebration and regretted skipping her chance to take a turn on Santa's lap — even if 12 is a little old for that kind of thing.
Miracle a year in the making
The plan that led up to the holiday miracle was set in motion a year before when Hetherington and a few of his friends started talking about finding a way to make Christmas special.
"It was pretty touching. There are some families that need help this time of year and we had all of these community members who were willing to help." - Greg Hetherington, Santa Surprise organizer
They settled on a strategy then swore each other to secrecy. Hetherington spent the next few months approaching community members and businesses and asking them for money.
The only problem was, he couldn't tell them what it was for.
"I told them a very vague story that I wanted to organize something special for kids but I couldn't tell them what it was … but it would be pretty cool," he explained. "These people gave me money without knowing what they were giving it to."
They managed to raise about $14,000 and with some help from area business owners, arranged for 25 volunteer "elves" to spend a Saturday running around to make the miracle happen.
One person was even waiting outside Toys 'R' Us in Windsor. They were called on when a toy couldn't be found anywhere in Chatham-Kent.
"That runner got it in Windsor, hit the 401 and made it to Canadian Tire in time for the family to arrive," said Hetherington. "It was priceless."
He added he doubts he'll ever see something like the Santa surprise happen ever again.
"It was pretty touching. There are some families that need help this time of year and we had all of these community members who were willing to help," he explained. "They did it out of their kindness of their heart … it's what we should do."
Beginning to feel a lot like Christmas
Hetherington said it will be a while before he'll be able to pull the same stunt again.
"If I'm at a secret Santa event I think they'll be onto me," he joked, adding that all the leftover cash will support Christmas charity drives in Chatham and Wallaceburg.
But the Christmas spirit he helped pass along is still going strong in Labadie's house.
"It definitely put the kids in the mood for Christmas," she laughed. "Now they think Santa is coming next week."