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August 13, 2015

Local elves bringing Rochester's "real" Santa Claus back to town

Even during the dog days of August, a Christmas miracle could be on the horizon for Rochester.

For the past 13 years, families have been visiting the "real" Santa Claus at Rochester's Apache Mall. This incarnation of St. Nicholas has developed a close relationship with the Med City during his popular annual visits.

549992e082afc.image"He's the real deal" is how Rochester's Kristine Caballero describes the jolly bearded fellow. "The magic truly is in him."

The depth of his connection to Rochester became apparent last year. His corporate employer, Worldwide Photography, was pushing to have him work 12 hours a day. When he said he could only manage 10 hours a day, the company moved to cut his hours and bring in a part-time Santa.

Parents immediately banned together to "save" Santa by creating a Facebook page to pressure Worldwide and the Apache Mall. The page quickly collected more than 7,000 "likes" and Santa finished the season bolstered by the support of his many fans.

However, when his contract to return to Rochester recently wasn't renewed by Worldwide, it looked like this Christmas carol might end on a sour note. The Texas-based company did not share the reason behind not bringing him back, though some have speculated that it could be a backlash reaction to the Save Santa campaign.

"It was a hard, emotional hit," said Santa, also known as Jerry Julian, of not being hired to return to Rochester. "Does this mean I just disappear for the families expecting to see me? In my heart, I didn't think it was right to abandon children and families."

Kim Bradley, Apache Mall manager, had no direct comment about this situation other than to say that the mall have a Santa Claus available starting on Nov. 19.

"We're looking forward to a great holiday season," she said.

When the rejected long-time Santa shared the situation with some of his friends in Rochester, Caballero, Melissa Eggler and others leaped into action to find an alternative way to bring him back for the holidays.

"His desire to come back is so great. I told him that 'You don't need corporate to bring you in here. This community loves you,'" said Caballero.

On Monday, the owners of the Miracle Mile Shopping Center agreed to provide a storefront for Santa by the ABC Toy Zone shop. He will appear there from the third week of November through Christmas Eve. While he might end up working with a photographer, the current plan is to allow families to take their own photos and accept donations.

"I'm really humbled by this," said Santa. "It's a gamble and there are still a lot of loose ends, but I know this is the job that the good Lord wants me to do."

Now Santa's helpers are working to raise money to cover Santa's basic travel and living expenses. They launched a GoFundMe campaign this week that has already brought in $260 in pledges. The money they raise is targeted just for basic expenses. Santa says anything raised by the GoFundMe campaign beyond his expenses will be donated to Rochester's Ronald McDonald House.

Caballero added that even her young son feels it's important to bring this Santa back to Rochester.

"He had heard us talking and asked about it. He said, 'But Mom, just think about all of children whose lives will be affected, if he doesn't come,'" she said.