For the rest of his life, Isaiah Rodgers may never have another birthday quite like his first.

The serenity just before dawn outside the toddler’s new home near Ninth and Chestnut streets in Columbus was suddenly disrupted when a clatter arose at about 7:15 a.m. Saturday.

After his mother carried him to the window, what to Isaiah’s wondering eyes should appear — but one of the biggest sleighs ever to emerge from the North Pole.

“Look, Isaiah,” Ashley Rodgers said to her toddler son. “It’s Santa!”

Story continues below gallery

Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

Stepping off the back of the brightly-illuminated red sleigh that featured changing colored lights on the wheels was indeed the most recognizable holiday icon of all time, carrying a box load of gifts to Isaiah’s front door.

When Kris Kringle set the box on the family’s table, Isaiah became the first of almost 1,200 children to receive toys, clothing and other goodies from the Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund in 2016.

As Santa held him in his arms moments later, Isaiah couldn’t help but smile while feeling the texture of that world renowned beard (absolutely real) before playing with the furry white ball at the end of St. Nick’s red stocking cap.

After leaving the house, it was Santa who was grinning from ear to ear.

“This just blows my mind,” said the jolly old elf, who bears a resemblance to Ralph Childers of Housing Partnership, Inc. “This is what Christmas is all about for me.”

On his first birthday, Isaiah — who moved to town with his mother just a few weeks ago from Whiteland — had his initial meeting with Santa while receiving his first presents that will help mark his first Christmas in Columbus.

And even though the Cheer Fund is now 86 years old, Bartholomew County’s oldest charity still in existence also experienced its share of firsts. For example, organizers decided to recruit both Santa and the antique sleigh — a 1937 Cummins diesel-powered open-cabbed Stutz fire engine — to deliver the first presents of the morning.

Inside the warehouse of the Doug Otto United Way Center, the more than 40 volunteers who manned six stations inside the Doug Otto United Way Center warehouse also were experiencing something new. Several refinements to the former loading process designed to increase efficiency were outlined before the first vehicles were allowed inside to load up at 7 a.m.

“The needs of the community are ever changing, so the Cheer Fund always has to be changing to meet those needs,” nine-year volunteer Melissa Wilson said.

When the United Way 2-1-1 of South Central Indiana stopped taking applications Dec. 2, about 1,100 children had been approved to receive toys and other gifts through the Cheer Fund, co-chairman Chris Owens said.

However, more than 100 additional families — including many whose parents missed the deadline — were placed on a waiting list over the following week, and told assistance only will be provided if there were sufficient funds or supplies.

Although the waiting list has historically been as high as 250 kids, there’s never been a time when they couldn’t find the resources to serve all qualified children on that list, said Jay Smith, another of the event’s co-chairmen.

“When we say we have an outpouring of kids, the community will back us up every time,” Smith said. “We never really have to worry because we know it’s going to happen.”

The total number of children helped will continue to go up between now and Christmas Day, due to last-minute requests and providing help to other holiday assistance programs that need it.

There will be other firsts in the future. Due to a need for space for housing nonprofit organizations, the Cheer Fund must find a new headquarters when their lease for the warehouse expires three years from now, co-chairman Jarrad Mullis said.

Efforts are underway to find local property owners who have a building that might fit the charity’s needs, Mullis said.

But while change may always be inevitable, hundreds of volunteers have made the Cheer Fund as important a Christmas tradition in their lives as decorated trees, present exchanges and stocked stuffings are in the holidays experienced by many local families.

One tradition is seeing a line of cars and trucks already stretching for four blocks outside the Doug Otto Center a half-hour before deliveries are made.

For the sixth consecutive year, Jeff and Chandra Tobias of West Goeller Road were the first in line Saturday morning to deliver cheer boxes.

However, those bragging rights were almost forfeited Saturday. Arriving at 5 a.m. — a half-hour later than last year — the Tobias family found out that Touchdown Machining Inc. President Samuel Wilcoxon had actually gotten there before they did.

“But (Wilcoxon) wasn’t sure this was the right place, so he went over to the Washington St fire station,” Jeff Tobias said. “We kind of snuck in right under the gun.”

Another tradition is the goody bags Sam and Fran Simmermaker make. This year, the well-known radio sportscaster and his wife, a retired educator, prepared about 1,250 containing a mix of fresh fruit and assorted holiday candies.

Every year, many warehouse volunteers sport festive holiday clothing while loading up vehicles and simultaneously dancing to upbeat and energetic holiday music.

But the most noticeable tradition in both the warehouse — and in the delivery vehicles — are the smiling and excited faces of children.

“I bring my three kids every year because I want them to see that it’s more than just getting,” said Chasity Smith, who has helped the charity for seven consecutive years. “They love it. And for me, it wouldn’t be the same without them.”

As organizers explain it, seeing all those young volunteers making the Cheer Fund part of their Christmas tradition virtually assures the nearly century-old Cheer Fund will continue well after they are gone.

By the numbers

Number of children receiving assistance through the Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund over the past five years.

2016 (preliminary): Slightly less than 1,200 (more expected to be helped; exact figures available after Christmas).

2015: 1,222

2014: 1,503

2013: 1,357

2012: 1,238

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.