Debbie Crum, executive director of Mississippi Wildlife Rehabilitation (MWR) based outside Hernando, donned a Whoville-inspired up do hairstyle and red sweater amid 73 degree humidity Friday night.

The warm temps made for a warm evening for kids and their parents to see Santa Claus in person and pop-up Christmas “shops.”

The event was hosted by MWR as a fundraiser for its proposed wildlife animal hospital slated for construction and to be named in honor of its founder, Valery Smith.

All 80 tickets available sold out in 36 hours.

“We sold tickets for Christmas at the ARK for Mississippi Wildlife’s (future) nature center here at the Ark Trails,” Crum explained. “Everything we raised here goes directly into our nature center. The tickets included all the shops the kids got to go to, a picture with Santa, make a Christmas ornament, build a little wooden toy at the wood-working shop and bag reindeer food. We also have a book shop where kids can take home a book. We had our candy cane shop and hot cocoa with the elves.”

With limited parking at the ARK Trails pavilion, attendees were staggered in time slots, 20 kids a slot. The gathering was first held during the COVID pandemic at the ARK Trails with limited attendance. This was its second year.

Crum and her team luckily managed to schedule Ole Saint Nick to attend and hear the Christmas wishes of good boys and girls. Crum said she convinced Santa to let the MWR team perform a health check-up on his team of reindeer. 

“We have to make sure we can check out Santa’s reindeer, make sure they’re healthy, and everything for the Christmas trip,” Crum said. “ In exchange for coming and hanging out with us, we do health checks on all his reindeer.”

Barry and Jaime Latham, of Hernando, brought their daughter Lennox Piper to tell Santa her wish list for Christmas.

“We love this one on one experience with Santa,” Jaime said. 

Dad echoed the same sentiments, “It’s really cute with the workshops they have, kids enjoy it, they can build an ornament.” Barry said. “I just enjoy watching my child smile.

Lennox said she wanted to ask Santa for Barbie dolls.

“Buddy the Elf” was also present in anticipation of Santa’s arrival. He greeted attendees and spread his own special holiday cheer.

“Santa is my favorite!” Buddy said. “Oh! I worked with him on the sleigh for all my life! I’m not an elf, I’m a human, but I was raised by elves. I’m about 35 years old! I used to build toys but then I wasn’t fast enough so now I work on Santa’s sleigh!”

Nine-year-old Mary Funderburk, of Hernando, was able to partake of the wooden toy workshop and build her very own model sailboat.

“I like the look of the boat,” Mary said. “My mom’s in line now to meet Santa. I want to ask Santa for a hover board.”

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