Sevierville Santas distribute toys in Oklahoma tornado zone

Jun. 19, 2013 @ 11:56 PM

A group of professional Santas who make up the nonprofit organization Tennessee Santa's Disaster Relief for Children has returned from a seven-day relief trip to aid the children of Moore, Okla. All four men live in Sevierville.  

The EF5-classified tornado that hit Moore last month resulted in 24 dead, numerous others injured, and widespread damage to the landscape. When another tornado hit Oklahoma City late last month, it became the second EF5 tornado to hit the area within an 11-day time span.

"I've never seen so much destruction in my life," said organization member Bob Lochmiller. "It was like a war zone."

Lochmiller said soon after returning to Sevierville, the city had its own tornado scare, and as the sky became darker, his concern began to ebb. "After seeing what we saw in Okalahoma, it didn't take long for my wife and I to head down the stairwell for safety," Lochmiller said.

While the group of Santas had been meeting previously as a loosely organized group, they recently decided to move forward as a full nonprofit organization.

"We wanted to do more than meet at Shoney's and drink coffee," Lochmiller added.

Lochmiller, who is from the Oklahoma City area, said that after the national news began covering the scene in Moore, the group knew it had its first mission.

To raise money and gather donations for the trip, member Guy Fussell contacted the Sevierville Walmart and received permission for the group to set up outside the store for one day.  

With items and money donated, coupled with some toys the men already had on hand, the group was able to pass out approximately 500 toys to children in Moore.

Santas Nick Kuykendall, Bob Gervais and Bob Lochmiller, set up right across the street from Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were killed during the May 24 storm.

"It was wonderful. People were very receptive the first day we arrived, but at first it was overwhelming," Lochmiller said. "We felt very small, and I wondered...What can three old fat men do? Then a woman walked up to us and said, 'You're the only normal thing I've seen for three weeks. Thanks for being here.'"

One memory from the trip made a significant impact on Lochmiller. A little girl he estimated to be 8 years old pulled up as a passenger in her father's pickup truck. "Santa, I want to give you a quarter," she told Gervais. He replied that Santa was there to give presents to the children, not vice versa, but the little girl insisted.

"We put that quarter in a plastic encapsulated container like coin collectors use," Lochmiller said. "During our meetings, we're going to put it on the table to help us remember why we meet." n

jfrye@themountainpress.com