Monday, December 17, 2007

North Pole relocates to Santa Barbara


Accidental Santa is back and he brought a whole crew of helpers.
John Dickson, a Goleta resident who discovered his business phone number, 1-800-SANTABARBARA is one digit off from 1-800-SANTACLAUS, had a busy holiday season last year, fielding hundreds of calls from children hoping to speak to the jolly, white-bearded fella himself.
So this year, with a little help from Montecito Bank & Trust and a lot of holiday spirit from the community, Dickson set up a call center with dozens of enthusiastic volunteers ready to listen as youngsters rattle off their Christmas wishes.

“The whole thing is amazing to me,” he says between picking up a constantly ringing phone. “It just melts my heart. These kids are so full of love and hope.”
As the phone rings again, he picks it up, his face beaming as he answers in a deep booming voice.
“Ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas,” he says. “This is Santa, what would you like this year?”
The requests range from the typical — Barbie dolls, video games and digital cameras — to the quirky — monkeys, baby brothers and tickets to a Hannah Montana concert.
While he’s lost track of the thousands of requests from thousands of gleeful kids, Dickson says he’ll never forget the first call he took as the accidental Santa.
It was December 12, 2006. He had just recently activated his new business number for, his online visitors guide to Santa Barbara. The phone rang.
“It was a little boy calling and asking for a blue truck, a pony and a spider,” he says. “My instinct was to play along.”
After listening to the boy’s request and telling him he’d try his best, Dickson hung up the phone, thinking for a moment before realizing that the boy had simply dialed the last digit incorrectly. Amusedly, he went back to whatever he had been doing. Then the phone rang again. And again. And again.
In all, Dickson answered exactly 973 calls last holiday season, sitting in his living room with a fire roaring nearby.
“It’s so much fun, it’s not overwhelming at all,” he says.
With his voicemail system quickly clogged and hundreds of calls continuing to pour in, he estimates he missed thousands of calls from hopeful children last year.
“That’s the reason I started the call center,” he says.
After hearing about it in local and national media, dozens of people contacted him about volunteering to answer phones this year, he says, and at an event a few months ago he bumped into Janet Garufis, president and CEO of Montecito Bank & Trust.
“I said I was interested in putting together a call center,” Dickson says. “Janet immediately, without hesitation, said we want to help you.”
In addition to adorning the lobby of its administrative offices at 1010 State St. with boughs of greenery, holiday ornaments and cotton “snow,” the bank set up tables with five phones linked to Dickson’s number and are helping out with what is sure to be a staggering phone bill. Bank associates, including Garufis herself, are also scheduled to help field calls.
“It seemed to fit in naturally with our reputation as a community bank,” Garufis says.
Although the center officially opened for business Monday morning, Dickson says he started answering calls on Sunday, after he concluded a nationally broadcasted interview with MSNBC.
“The phones just went nuts after that,” he says. “Within two hours of the interview, the 1,500-message voicemail was full.”
Bank officials were forced to disconnect the voicemail system, giving anyone who calls and doesn’t get through a busy signal. Since Sunday, Dickson estimates the center has received more than 10,000 calls, due to national media exposure.
“Before it was the accidental calls,” he says. “Now it’s the direct calls from people who saw my number on television.”
When he does get a call for, Dickson quickly transitions into his business voice, pretending he didn’t just answer the phone with a jolly Santa impersonation.
Tina Fanucchi, an old friend of Dickson who approached him during the year about volunteering, sat down to her first two-hour shift at the call center, speaking to about 30 kids in a matter of minutes.
“They are too cute, you just want to cry,” she says.
Some asked for electric guitars, others for digital cameras, and one, a new baby sister.
“I always ask, are you sure your mom and dad want you to have that?” she says.
Neftali Rubio, a Santa Barbara resident also answering phones, says it can be tricky when kids call expecting to talk to Santa Claus and have to settle for Mrs. Claus instead.
“Mostly I tell them that Santa is out feeding Rudolph,” she says. “They really like that.”
She answered a call from one young boy who said his mother told him to call because he didn’t believe in Santa Claus.
“So at the end of the call I asked if he believed in Santa now and he said, oh yes,” Rubio says.
Although Dickson has more than 80 volunteers scheduled for two-hour shifts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through December 24, he says there are still a few spaces to fill. Those looking to pitch in or learn more about the call center can visit
“The citizens of Santa Barbara have come together and that is the beauty of it,” Dickson says. “I’m so happy that Santa Barbara is involved.”
When asked if he had ever considered disconnecting his phone or canceling his phone number, Dickson laughs and shakes his head.
“Not for a second.”

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