St. Nick finds children in rubble-strewn Kentucky

BREMEN, Ky. – Santa Claus has a habit of working on the fly.

This Christmas, he took a little detour on his way back to the North Pole when he heard that the nice boys and girls of Bremen, Kentucky, ravaged by a tornado two weeks earlier, needed to know that Santa Claus still love them.

That’s how Art ‘Santa Art’ Hoffman loaded his Prius sleigh with toys and knick-knacks, donned the bright red jumpsuit he reserves for hot days, and made the two-hour ride from Louisville to the little one. county town of Muhlenberg.

There was no plan other than to spread the much-needed joy.

“I met Santa Claus”

A St. Nick professional for over four decades, Hoffman has parked at Nickolas’ Corner, a shop and gas station on Bremen’s main street. Some people stopped when they saw Santa Claus, and other Hoffmans begged to come back with their children.

Harley Winn, 6, and Joshua Winn, 9, were surprised to see Santa Claus in their hometown. They had just followed his movements on the news channel the night before.

“What were you waiting for?” he asked them. “That I was going down by your chimney?”

Santa Claus gave them stickers stating “I met Santa Claus” and coins officially placing them on the Beautiful List.

“It’s been their day,” stepdad Ryan Vick said.

“I need all the help I can get”

Hoffman drove half a mile down the road where roofers were busy installing new shingles on a windswept house.

“Santa Claus came to see you,” he told surprise owner Inez Burden, 92.

“I need all the help I can get,” Burden replied.

“Because you’re on the beautiful list, I got the roofers out,” he said.

Inez Burden visited Art Hoffman, a retired public health official, who played Santa Claus in Bremen on Christmas Day.  The city is limited to around 200 people but left around 12 people dead on the night of the tornado.  December 25, 2021

Bremen has turned out to be so enjoyable that Santa’s detour will become Hoffman’s pit stop next Christmas.

“They are always resistant”

Two days earlier, Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park looked a bit like Santa’s Workshop, as thousands of donations from First Lady Britainy Beshear’s toy drive were up for grabs for families affected by tornadoes.

Team Kentucky T-shirts volunteers continually restocked the tables, stacking them with board games, Legos, soft toys, dolls, books, and volleyballs. All around them, children enthusiastically filled bags and boxes full of toys as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” played.

Two-year-old Octavia Skipworth smiles as she receives a new dress on Christmas Eve by volunteers and members of Redemption City Church in Dawson Springs.  Many children from families in difficulty who live in social housing had Christmas a day earlier.  The December 10 tornado destroyed most of Dawson Springs.  December 24, 2021

Upbeat Governor Andy Beshear compared it to a scene from a movie or a miracle coming out of obscurity.

“About 10 to 11 days ago, a lot of these kids were in a bathtub as their homes exploded around them, and today might be the first day they laughed,” he said. “But they are walking around to have the greatest Christmas imaginable. I can’t tell you how many of them got that gift they really wanted the most and seeing pure joy after all they’ve been through is enough. special.”

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus - Troy Black and Steely Vanlue - observe the destruction in Dawson Springs as they ride on a trailer to help distribute toys to residents living in public housing on Christmas Eve night.  The December 10 tornado destroyed most of the small town.  December 24, 2021

Lynn and Donna Mayhew – or Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus to the children of Pennyrile – came from Owensboro to distribute candy. As adoptive parents, they have a heart for the children. Surrounded by toys and two days before Christmas, they saw happy and smiling children.

“They are excited,” said Donna Mayhew. “It cheers you up.… They’re still resilient. They keep going. It’s amazing how much fun they’re having today. It must make them feel so much better.

Dawson Springs resident Meredith Hyde was in attendance with her 5-year-old granddaughter, Alivia Fiveash, who happily grabbed a stuffed dog. Hyde said Alivia lived in Dawson Springs and attended school there, but was out of town during the storm.

“She doesn’t understand that we don’t have a home anymore,” Hyde said after encouraging the preschooler to pick out toys. “She still thinks it’s the same as it was before she left.”

Sarah Carr, left, receives a hug from Steely Vanlue, depicting Ms. Claus, as at a gift stop in Dawson Springs on Christmas Eve.  December 24, 2021

Alivia showed off her new puppy pillow, which she named Bella.

“Because it’s for my new room,” she said. “Because Gigi’s house is gone because it’s broken by the storm.”

Alivia said her trampoline is no longer there, but she’s hoping to get a new one – in pink, hopefully – and a pink blanket with unicorns on it.

Photos on Gigi’s phone showed what was once Alivia’s bedroom, her old toys covered in the broken glass of the windows. “There is fun to be had,” was inscribed on one of the walls.

Hyde said his family would be fine. They will rebuild their house.

There is even more fun to be had.

Contact Tessa Duvall at tduvall@courier-journal.com and 502-582-4059. Twitter: @TessaDuvall.