Students in the special education program at several Forsyth County elementary schools were recently gathered in one of Fowler Park’s gyms for a day of games, food and fun as part of an annual Special Olympics holiday event.
When Larry Jones walked into the gym in his Santa suit, complete with a real beard, he was met with hugs and the whole room’s attention.
For more than 30 years, Larry Jones has dressed as Santa Claus, primarily for children with special needs. Jones said he got his start with the special education department of Forsyth County Schools when he was an employee and the program was in need of a Santa.
“Thirty-two years ago, they needed a Santa Claus for special ed,” Jones said. “I’ve been doing it ever since. [They] asked me would I mind, and I said, ‘no, I wouldn’t mind a bit.’ They bought my first suit for me.”
Linda Whittle, of the Cumming Civitan Club, worked as a teacher in the special education department when Jones was first called upon for his Santa duties.
“The first time, he didn’t have a beard, and it scared them,” Whittle said. “So then, he grew a beard, but back then he had to go over to the cosmetology department to bleach it out. Now it’s not a problem.”
Jones said kids would pull off the beard, which “terrified” them, so he grew his own.
While his beard is real, he doesn’t wear it year round and begins growing it over the summer. In fact, his beard typically doesn’t make it to Christmas day.
“Dec. 24, when I come in, the grandkids are waiting with clippers,” he said. “One year they left me pork chops. One year they left me a mustache. One year they left me a Fu Manchu. One year they left me squirrel tails, that’s where the mustache and the beard come all the way down [in a spiral]. I have no earthly idea what they’re going to do to me this year.”
Over the last three decades, Jones has built quite a following as Santa and said he became especially popular when people found out he didn’t charge, though he does charge at some private functions to help with expenses, like gas to get to his locations and the $50 cost to clean his suit.
In that time, he has made a special connection with some local families, and some of his events can come as early as the beginning of October and take him all around the area.
“I’m already getting calls for next year,” Jones said. “I’ve got people I’ve been doing for 32 years. I’m holding babies now that I held their mommas and daddies when they were babies, and the grandparents are bringing pictures to prove it.”
Jones said there is definitely some emotion in being such a big part of families’ Christmas celebrations.
“It makes me feel good, I won’t lie, that I brought some sunshine and a smile on their face,” he said. “Some of these kids … they said that I was the only Santa Claus their child had ever known, and they would not go to any other; they want to go to the real Santa Claus.”
While his interactions with kids are almost always fun for both parties, Jones said there are moments when he is reminded just how important Santa can be.
“The only thing that really tears me up — and it’s happened this year, it happened last year, it happened the year before — we always get a little boy or little girl in your lap and you cuddle them and say, ‘What do you want for Christmas,’” he said. “They’ll say, ‘We don’t want nothing if you can get mommy to come back home, and it will tear your heart out.”
In those tough moments, Santa has some advice.
“The only thing I know to do is hold them as tight as I can without hurting them and I tell them, ‘look, if I could, I would, but if momma and daddy can’t work this out, nobody can. But don’t you ever think it’s your fault,” Jones said. “That’s the only thing I know to say to them.”
Around the same time as Jones’ first venture as Santa, Whittle said she joined the Civitan Club, where they began hosting the annual event. More than 30 years later, Jones is as popular as ever.
“We started doing Christmas parties in conjunction with Special Olympics, and so of course, I knew Santa well, so it’d always been my job to get in touch with Santa,” she said.
At the Special Olympics event, Jennifer Gonzalez, a special education at Matt Elementary, said Jones had been coming to events as long as she had been at the school and even had connections with some of the students.
“I’ve been in special ed for 13 years, and he’s always been the Santa,” Gonzalez said. “It’s great. He sometimes knows the kids because he sees them year after year. So, I just think it’s amazing that he would dedicate himself for the kids.”