Hurry now. This Kiwanis train’s ‘bout to leave the station. Destination: the North Pole.
Story and photos by Kasey Jackson
Snow is lightly dusting over Rockland, Maine, and the temperature has fallen enough that each exhale creates bright white, fluffy clouds against the backdrop of a darkening sky. But the freezing temperature isn’t enough to keep hundreds of families from braving the zig-zagging lines that have quickly formed.
Little ones in footed PJs stand hand-in-hand with parents, grandparents, siblings and friends, staring up in awe at the larger-than-life vintage green and silver train towering above them. Members of the Kiwanis Club of Rockland scurry about, double- and triple-checking that all is in order.
The Kiwanis Jingle Bell Express doors hiss open, and a conductor calls, “All aboard,” inviting passengers on a fantasy ride to Santa’s magical workshop. As most guests nestle into their seats, some of the youngest already are smashing their faces against the window to look outside. As the train pulls away from the historic Maine Eastern Railroad station in Rockland, it chugs for Thomaston, aka the North Pole, about four miles down the coast and an imagination away from reality. All along the route, volunteers lead families in singing Christmas carols, read “The Polar Express” and end by stirring excitement for the main attraction: the first sighting of jolly red-cheeked elves and … could it be?
Did you see him?
Who? Where? Where!
The train stops. The doors open.
Santa boards the train with a hearty Ho! Ho! Ho! Elf volunteers follow close behind, giving each young passenger a keepsake bell to remind them of their journey.
There are giggles and gasps. A few are too shy to even look, burying their heads behind the closest adult. Others just stare, mouths agape. Parents find themselves believing again.
Once Santa finishes greeting all passengers in each glittery, snowflake decorated train car, he’s off to meet up with the elves and Mrs. Claus, outside on the stoop of the workshop. With a friendly smile, they wave, and the entire scene disappears into the dark of night as the train heads back to the station, passengers chattering excitedly about what they just witnessed.
It all seems like fantasy. Magic. But it’s real.
The holiday train ride is a new project for the Rockland Kiwanis club, but not for the community. For the past five years, the Rockland Toy Library Polar Express was a success, but when that group decided to end the project, the Kiwanians stepped in to take over. The 2011 ride will be the club’s second year running the show. And the transition was made easier because one very active Kiwanian has made a living workin’ on the railroad—and he had some very eager friends.
Gordon Page, vice president and director of passenger operations for the Maine Eastern Railroad, is also a member of the Rockland Kiwanis Club. As a past distinguished president, past lieutenant governor of Division 4 of the New England District and past treasurer of the New England District, Page has seen firsthand what it takes to create a successful Kiwanis service project or fundraiser. He saw potential for the club taking over the holiday train event—and he knew midcoast Mainers would be delighted to hear the train rides would continue.
“Our club was thrilled to be able to step in and make sure this tradition continues for the families who have now been coming here to board the train year after year,” Page says. “And the project created a great deal of enthusiasm among club members.”
Getting volunteers and club members on board for the project wasn’t too difficult, despite a jam-packed winter schedule that also included the club’s annual Christmas tree sale. Page says not only Kiwanis members, but Key Clubs, Aktion Club, Builders Club and K-Kids members also jumped at the chance to help out in any way—baking cookies, wrapping gifts, reading to guests on the train or dressing as North Pole elves.
Kiwanian Marjorie Kinney, aka Mrs. Claus, beams during a quick break between train visits.
“It’s going absolutely great,” she says while sipping hot chocolate. “It’s such a community builder. Look at this room. Somebody gave these people a call, and they came down here.”
The room is bustling with action. Volunteers pour hot chocolate and serve cookies to the cold crew from the North Pole, which includes at least 50 young elves who are laughing and enjoying the warmth of the church that doubles as the North Pole rest area. Some are K-Kids. Some are Builders and others are Key Clubbers. A few in the corner are Girl Scouts. One of the readers is a member of the Lions Club.
“It’s magical,” Kinney says. “It’s so nice to get to know new people. It also brings people together we wouldn’t otherwise meet.”
She points out that the children in the room are barely over the age of being believers themselves, and yet here they are to make other children’s dreams come true. The buzz in the room is mostly about how much fun they’re having.
“I think it’s really fun because I like seeing all the little kids’ faces looking out at me from the train,” says Miranda Marsh, member of the K-Kids club at Camden-Rockport Elementary School. “Yesterday when I waved to a kid, he banged his hands up on the windows and smiled at me. He believed I was a real elf.”
The project is a success not only in terms of bringing magic to the holiday season, but it serves a larger purpose: to bring in the funds necessary for the Kiwanis club to continue important service projects throughout the year. After expenses, the club raised US$5,000, which will go toward scholarships and various other projects, including Special Olympics, Reading Is Fundamental, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Make-a-Wish, Life Flight of Maine, the Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute and support of parks and playgrounds.
The lasting effect on the community is great, but the memories are even more special.
“Kiwanis did a great job,” says Charlene Orne of Camden, Maine, as she exits the train with her husband and son. “It was well marketed, and it was all imagination. It was incredible.”
“I liked getting the bell,” adds her son, Greyson, age 6. “And I liked Santa too.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Kiwanis magazine.