Polar Express on track for a good cause

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Five-year-old Kaitlin Scherber was a bit reluctant to get on The Polar Express train Saturday afternoon.

Though it was to be Kaitlin’s first train ride, her mother, Lori Aldrich, thought the reticence had to do with the movie of the same name which Kaitlin saw last year.

“There were some scenes in the movie that were pretty scary” for a four-year old, said Aldrich. “She was afraid of the wolves.”

Perhaps it was the thought of seeing Santa Claus that gave Kaitlin her courage. Or perhaps it was the mystique of the conductor who breezed into the lobby to see if the children were ready. But when the conductor hollered out “all aboard to the North Pole!” the kindergartener from Richmond – dressed in multi-colored pastel pajamas, black rubber boots and a purple bathrobe – grabbed her mother’s hand and with hundreds of other people, boarded The Polar Express.

“The Polar Express,” a 1985 illustrated children’s book and a 2004 movie, tells the story of a young boy who one night rides a train with other children – all in their pajamas — to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus and his elves.

The real-life Burlington version loads children – most between three and five years old – and families onto a train from the Wing Building next to an empty-looking Union Station. The train drives 10 minutes into South Burlington, and returns to a Union Station filled with elves dressed identically in red shirts and hats. Inside the building, families listen to a reading of “The Polar Express,” then follow Santa Claus upstairs to receive a bell from his reindeer sleigh.

The event is the largest annual fundraiser for the Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation, according to project coordinator Fagan Hart, who created the event in 2002. Over $60,000 is raised for community-based prevention programs for children and families in Vermont. Literacy, mentoring, teen leadership, parent education and afterschool activities are among the programs the Foundation supports. Hart estimated that more than 600 books would be collected this year, too, as families are asked to donate a book to support literacy programs.

“We try to do the programs that keep things magical for kids after school, day in and day out,” Hart said of the Foundation. “This event (The Polar Express) just works two days a year to make this magical moment, and we want every kid to feel like this every day of the year,” she continued.

In its fourth year, the event has grown increasingly popular. Last year organizers turned away 700 families, Hart said. This year 40 percent more train rides were offered and organizers still ended up turning away 100 families. Tickets are sold by lottery.

The event is a logistical feat. Over fourteen hours – from 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday – 3,300 people move from Burlington to the North Pole on 14 train rides on the hour. There are more than 600 volunteers: “conductors” lead a Christmas carol sing-along and “chefs” serve cookies and hot cocoa on the train; “elves” greet children by first name (they wear nametags) upon their arrival to the North Pole; a choir sings as families enter Union Station.

For the last two years, a number of students and chaperones from Williston Central School’s Swift House (grades five through eight) have volunteered.

“You get to make the little kids happy when they get off the train making them think they’re in the North Pole,” said Leah Leister, 11, who was an elf for the second time this year.

Swift House teacher Al Myers estimated that about 40 students and 25 chaperones helped this year. Myers helps with lighting effects. On Saturday afternoon, Santa Claus bore a striking resemblance to Swift House teacher Gary Howard.

Jacob LaCroix, 10, said that it seemed he’d make a good elf because “everybody else is taller than me.” His favorite part was saying hello to the kids and shaking their hands.

“It’s really fun,” said Jacob