Volunteers are the heart of Dearborn Rotary’s Santa Snaps workshop at the Wayne County Lightfest

Special to the Times-Herald

Photo courtesy of the Rotary Club of Dearborn Fordson High School Interact Club students and friends — Zein Alsaadawi (left), Tabarek Ahmed, Hassan Aldefy, Mahdi Koubeissi and Nicholas Fakhoury — have their picture taken with Santa.

Photo courtesy of the Rotary Club of Dearborn
Fordson High School Interact Club students and friends — Zein Alsaadawi (left), Tabarek Ahmed, Hassan Aldefy, Mahdi Koubeissi and Nicholas Fakhoury — have their picture taken with Santa.

DEARBORN — For nearly 40 evenings this Christmas season, the Rotary Club of Dearborn will rely on dozens of volunteers to be Santa and serve as Santa’s helpers during the Wayne County Lightfest—helping to create photo memories for generations of area families.

Dearborn Rotary’s Santa Snaps workshop began nearly 30 years ago as a community service project and fundraiser to support the club’s many scholarship programs and service projects.

“In the early days, we started with a pretty simple set up and had only a couple of Kodak Polaroid cameras to take pictures of children and families with Santa Claus,” said Dearborn Rotarian Roger Miller, who has directed and expanded construction and decoration of the workshop since it began. “At that time, most of the volunteers came from our club.”

Because of the popularity and growth of the Lightfest on Hines Drive, Wayne County asked Dearborn Rotary to have the Santa Snaps workshop available for additional days. This year, Santa and his helpers arrived on November 16 and will be available through Dec. 23.

“Our club isn’t the size it used to be so we couldn’t continue without the support of many more volunteers,” said Eric Rader, Dearborn Rotary president-elect and chair of the 2018 Santa Snaps workshop.

In addition to Dearborn Rotarians, volunteers include Rotarians from Fairlane Sunrise, Hines Park and Dearborn Heights; Interact students from the local schools; staff and students from Henry Ford College; and others who are friends of Rotary.

At least six to eight volunteers are needed each evening as Santa helpers — to serve as team captains, greet visitors, share how Rotary works in the local community, introduce children to Santa, take photos of children and families, print the photos on digital printers and place them in special Santa frames for family memories. Volunteers also pass out candy canes and help clean up in preparation for the next day.

“We only request a donation of $8 for each photo, and they can have as many people in the picture as they want,” Rader said. “We have people of all ages who want their picture taken with Santa.”

Because of Santa’s important role, Rader shared that the club is fortunate to have very dedicated Santa volunteers, including Dearborn resident Ron Priestaf, who is also a year-round volunteer at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

During the Christmas season, Priestaf is a professional “real bearded Santa” with 19 years’ experience, having attended the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland and St. Nicholas Institute in Detroit.

This is Priestaf’s third year to be a Santa for Dearborn Rotary. In addition to volunteering five nights for Rotary’s Santa Snaps workshop, Priestaf is busy as Santa at tree lightings, parades, schools, nursing homes and other area events.

“My role is to listen to the children,” Priestaf said. “I don’t promise gifts. I let them know that Christmas is about love, giving to others, helping at home, remembering and creating new memories.

“The blessing of the Lightfest is that you never know who is coming through the door. We welcome people of all religions, ethnic groups, abilities and backgrounds. It’s a safe place that brings joy and happiness and binds people together as a family.”

“Our club is fortunate to have Ron and so many other volunteers who receive as much joy as they give while volunteering,” Rader said. “It makes the long hours well worth it.”

Dearborn Rotarian Bob Gleichauf also donates many hours each year to help set up Santa’s workshop, located in the Warrendale pavilion on Hines Drive where the Wayne County Lightfest ends.

“The job I enjoy most is being Santa,” said Gleichauf. “The children that visit come from every segment of society.  Many are from warm and wonderful families, and some from difficult family situations. Every interaction with the children is unique and sometimes challenging. Many of the children just want to know that Santa cares for them and listens to them. I don’t solve any problems in four or five minutes, just provide a listening ear, a hug and usually a reminder that they need to help mom and dad out.”

Because Santa has lots of deliveries to make on Christmas Eve, the Santa Snaps workshop closes on Dec. 23, but the Wayne County Lightfest is openly nightly through Dec. 31.

Hours are 7 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The fee for the Lightfest is $5 cash per vehicle.

The address for the Lightfest is 7651 N. Merriman Road in Westland. The entrance is on Merriman Road between Ann Arbor Trail and Warren Avenue in Westland.

The Rotary Club of Dearborn is the city’s oldest service organization and is a member of Rotary International, bringing together 1.2 million members in more than 34,000 individual clubs to live the motto of “Service Above Self.”

The Rotary Club of Dearborn and its foundation support many community programs, scholarships and supportive donations. Total giving by the Rotary Club of Dearborn and its Foundation for 2017-2018 was $118,000.

For more information, go to www.DearbornRotary.org or Rotary Club of Dearborn on Facebook.