The young patients at University of Virginia Children’s Hospital received a special visit from a local celebrity, in the guise of a more famous international celebrity, on Christmas Day.
While Juandiego Wade doesn’t typically sit in the limelight at Charlottesville City Council meetings, Monday at the hospital was a different story. The city councilor and vice mayor donned the red and white garb of Santa Claus and brought some holiday cheer to those confined in the hospital over the Christmas season, some of whom have been there for months.
“I tell people it’s like Santa is an international symbol,” Wade told The Daily Progress. “They see him with the suit on, and even if they are very ill, you get a little smile on their face and it makes it all worth it.”
Wade has made the trip to UVa Children’s for the past seven Christmases; dressing up as Santa has become a tradition for the man who has served on City Council since the start of 2022 and previously served four terms on the city school board. In his day job, Wade is a career coordinator at the Albemarle County Career Center.
His daughter, Gabriella Ruby Lee Wade, served as “Santa’s helper” on Monday, a role she has filled since she was in high school. Now a senior at George Mason University, the younger Wade still manages to join her father on his Christmas Day visits.
They visited roughly 30 children and their families on Monday, giving each one a soft blanket and a gift chosen by the hospital staff: Legos, Hot Wheels and other age-appropriate gifts. The children ranged from newborn infants to 17 years old.
“Most of the children were not told about Santa’s visit in advance so it was a great surprise,” Josie Casey, a certified child life specialist as the hospital, told The Daily Progress. “Special visitors like this bring a lot of joy to our patients and brighten their spirits during the holidays.”
The city councilor said the staff works hard to let its patients go home for the holidays, but some are not in a condition to leave and must spend Christmas in their hospital beds. Over the course of several hours, he said he tries his best to make it a special day for them.
“Sometimes you go in a room and see brothers and sisters, aunts, cousins. You can bring the whole family a smile,” he said. “That was my Christmas present. To bring that joy was really special.”
Santa has visited UVa Children’s on Christmas Day well before Wade was wearing the stocking cap. But seven years ago, when his predecessor retired, the hospital needed a replacement. One of the hospital volunteers was a friend of the Wades and remembered that Juandiego Wade, then a school board member, had his own Santa suit.
Juandiego Wade said he comes from a big family, so he bought the suit years ago to dress up for his many nieces and nephews.
“I love working with children and bringing joy,” he said of the sartorial investment that is now paying dividends.
The hospital’s patients suffer from a variety of ailments, with some spending just a few days there and others several months. Each visit, Juandiego Wade said he is struck by how many different types of children the hospital supports, of various cultures, religions and colors. Regardless of their background, each is delighted to see Santa Claus on Christmas morning.
The experience helps him appreciate his own health and family, he said, especially upon seeing the strong family bonds in each room, where loved ones are not gathered around the light of a roaring fire but emanating a glow of their own.
“We went into one room and the mother was so thankful that she wanted to give Santa a present,” he said of his most recent visit.
The Wades declined, but after finishing their rounds they returned to that mother, spending half an hour talking about her child and her own childhood, including a Christmas memory of her community raising enough money to purchase her a bicycle she’d always wanted.
“To be honest, for a lot of those kids, it’s not often they see a Santa of color, and I think that’s something that stuck with her as well,” he said. “The kids I saw were all over the map in terms of demographics. They just saw Santa. No one looked at me like, ‘Santa is usually a White guy from North Pole.’”
As a city councilor, Wade said he does what he can to help the community. But playing Santa brings him a different type of fulfillment, as he gets to see the work of doctors and nurses he called the “real heroes.”
“Sometimes you can get pretty jaded because of the type of work we do,” he said of his time on council. “It is rewarding, but this is something where you get that instant gratification. You know you’ve done something good. You know you’ve had a positive impact.”