Mountain Santa tradition continues despite founder's battle with cancer

Jason Saylor filled in for Mike Howard on some of the Santa runs this season. Here he is seen giving out treat bags in Loyall.

HARLAN COUNTY (WDKY) -- A storage building on Santa Lane in Wallins Creek doesn't look special on the outside, but inside, it is stuffed floor to ceiling with thousands of wrapped toys. They've been collected all year to be distributed in some of the state's poorest communities, places where coal mining jobs have disappeared and nothing has taken their place.

Volunteers flock to the building every December to load the toys into trucks and vans that will be driven into hollows where a third of the people live in poverty. It's been happening every Christmas season since 1975.

April Galloway organizes the trucks and maps out their routes. Her instructions to the volunteers are simple.

"One present starting out," she tells them. "Unless the Lord moves you on to give more. You'll know it."

Her dad, Mike Howard, started making the deliveries three years before she was born. She and her two brothers have never known a Christmas without this convoy of joy. But this year, there's some sadness too.

"It's humbling to know he's loved this much," she tells the throng of volunteers. "I can't thank you enough. He'd be here if he could."

Howard, the man known as" Mountain Santa," was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer eight months ago and his treatments have stolen all his energy. One can only imagine how difficult it was for him to miss this year's trips into the hollows where he's the only Santa some children have ever seen.

But his son Jordan put on the Santa suit to lead one caravan and family friend Jason Saylor played Saint Nick for another run. Neither pretends to fill Mike's boots.

"It's sad that brother Mike ain't here," said Saylor. " We miss him and wish it was him out here."

A police siren notifies the mountain people when Santa has arrived in their communities. The trucks go slowly past each house and shed where a child could be living. Adults get goodie bags and kids get toys donated by church and civic groups from all over the state and out-of-state too.

By the time the operation was finished this year, "Mountain Santa" had taken more than 100 truckloads of toys into the mountains over three days.

Galloway says on Christmas eve, it often takes the group 12 hours to give it all away.

"When we come home we're empty. We go until we give out."

John Jenkins, who is looking for steady work, accepted gifts for his children and called the volunteers "life savers."

"It makes a huge difference to me," he said, " and a bigger difference to my kids. Without this I wouldn't have been able to do what I'm going to be able to do on Christmas morning."

All along, these volunteers have seen this as more than a toy drive. It's a ministry and sometimes the only thing people ask for is prayer.

Howard, the youngest of eleven children, started giving out candy dressed as a Santa to help a local merchant. But the next year, he collected some toys and went out on his own. This was the first time in 42 years he has missed putting on the red suit. But the retired coal miner is also known for good deeds year round, such as visiting nursing homes and inmates.

"I always said this world would be something to see if there were more people like him," said Galloway.

Mountain Santa has become a legend and a lot of people are determined to continue his work, no matter what the future holds.

Galoway said "We're hoping and praying we can have him up on his feet and ready to go for it next year."


Donations can be mailed to:

Mike Howard

268 Santa Lane

Wallins Creek, KY 40873

Spirit of the Bluegrass is sponsored by Regency Memory Care

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off