On the morning of Dec. 12, Sharon Witt, of Low Moor, wasn’t quite herself.

It was the day she and her husband, Ted, and several other area volunteers gathered to carry out their yearly Christmas custom of delivering holiday cheer to sick youngsters at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City.

Just after Thanksgiving, Sharon began to experience severe back pain — so much so, that she wasn’t sure she would be able to make the beloved annual trek.

It’s a tradition of which she and Ted have been a part for decades, and one that the couple has upheld since the passing of its founder, Clinton Lions Club member Dennis “Clipper” Trenkamp.

And back pain or no back pain, Witt was determined not to miss it.

“I said there’s no way I’m not going,” she noted firmly. “It would be the first time in I don’t know how long that I would have missed it … I don’t think I’ve ever missed it. Ted and I have been doing this for at least 30 years or so.”

After giving volunteers strict orders not to allow his bride of almost 44 years to lift any of the boxes of toys, totes stacked to the brim with books and bags packed full of handmade fleece blankets, Ted said the beloved “Santa Tour,” as it’s called, simply would not be the same without Sharon.

“I can’t imagine taking this trip without her,” he said, as volunteers replied with an enthusiastic round of applause.

This year marked the 38th anniversary of the annual Santa Tour. 

Each year, volunteers — members of various Lions Clubs and their friends and loved ones including Clinton, Delmar, Goose Lake, Low Moor, Miles and Preston — gather on a December morning at the Low Moor Community Center and load dozens of boxes of gifts onto a charter bus, also known as “Santa’s sleigh.”

There are gifts for young patients of all ages, which are purchased with donations made by various individuals, businesses and churches, including in Petersville, Delmar, Sugar Creek and Assumption Catholic Church in Charlotte.

Cozy fleece blankets, made and donated by the Preston Girl Scouts, also are given to provide a little extra comfort to kids who can’t be home for the holidays.

There are no fundraisers held to buy the presents — of which each child will get at least three or four, in addition to teddy bears, coloring books, markers, crayons and autographed pictures of Santa — and shopping is done pretty much year-round.

All the volunteers wear sweatshirts with colorful graphics of Santa Claus and the words, “Believe in Elves.”

Among Santa’s helpers this year was Jeff Trenkamp, son of Dennis, who founded the annual event.

Jeff said he has gone on the Santa Tour before, but it had been awhile.

“It’s been quite a few years,” the 42-year-old, of Clinton, related. “My daughter, Alysse, and sister, Trisha, have been working on me to go. Usually, I’m busy with work. But I decided I had to go. It’s a good trip … dad always said this season is a time for kids. One of the best things about it is when you see a kid who looks like he’s down in the dumps, and as soon as he sees Santa he just smiles … lights right up. That’s what it’s all about.”

That has become the unofficial motto of the Santa Tour — “One child, one smile.” If the volunteers can bring even just one smile the face of one sick child, they have accomplished their goal.

Also tagging along on this year’s tour was special guest and Lions District Governor of District 9EC, Tony Hill, and his wife, Mary, of St. Donatus.

“I’d heard such wonderful things about it,” Tony said of the Santa Tour. “I was invited to go this year and I said, ‘Absolutely!’ We’ve been looking forward to it.”

Volunteers were going to set up on the hospital’s 12th floor, where the famous “wave” with fans at Kinnick Stadium takes place. That area was going to be designated as the “North Pole.”

Dave Roling was one of two Santas to go on the tour and visit with children at the hospital. He said what began as a “back-up Santa” role for him has turned into a yearly gig, and he couldn’t be happier to help bring a little Christmas cheer to kids who would rather be home than in the hospital.

“It’s a special one,” he said with a smile. “It’s a very dear tradition they’ve started here and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

While some new faces are seen each year, others have made the tour a part of their holiday tradition.

That includes Connie Wagner, of Preston, who has been an “elf” on the trip for about 15 years.

“I love it,” Wagner related. “Just to see the kids smile … it’s so touching. For some of them, it’s the only Christmas they’ll really have this year. It really feels good to bring them some happiness and cheer.”

Before they left the community center that cloudy Thursday morning, Ted reminded volunteers while the experience can be an emotional one, it is without a doubt a good one.

“You’re in for one heck of a treat,” he shared. “Remember, one child, one smile. That’s our goal.”