Ten lakes area families will receive a special visit from the big guy this holiday season, courtesy of Smiles for Jake.

Santa will spread some Christmas cheer by virtually stopping in to greet 10 randomly selected families who sign up for the occasion.

“We hope that those 10 families we visit find additional hope and some additional inspiration this holiday season and that it just adds to their overall good health within their home and just brings some smiles and some laughter to the kids,” Smiles for Jake Board Chair Kristi Westbrock said.

Last winter, the suicide prevention organization hosted The Smile Express at the Northern Pacific Center, a holiday event with crafts, hayrides, s’mores, fireworks, a Christmas tree lighting and, of course, a visit from Santa. About 1,500 people attended, and Westbrock said many asked if it was going to happen again.

But 2020 being what it is with a pandemic wreaking havoc and preventing large social gatherings, Smiles for Jake tried to find something a little safer for the times that could still promote its message of mental health awareness.

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“We were like, we have to come up with some way to at least connect with a few people this holiday season,” Westbrock said.

Families interested in the virtual meet and greet with Santa can throw their names in the hat via Facebook by commenting about their intentions of spreading hope and joy this holiday season on a Smiles for Jake post from Nov. 18. Ten names will be drawn Dec. 1, and Santa will embark on his cyber-journey Dec. 12, stopping at each home for 10 minutes.

The chosen families will all receive an additional holiday surprise as well.

“It’s a lot of coordination but also worth it,” Westbrock said.

Mental health in a pandemic

Smiles for Jake, named in honor of 16-year-old Brainerd High School student Jake Haapajoki, who took his own life in 2018, aims to reduce suicide rates by uplifting people, building community and spreading messages of positivity and hope.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Westbrock said those at Smiles for Jake have been concerned about mental health needs in the community, especially among parents and their children.

“I think a lot of parents know that their kids are certainly more connected to all of the digital media and all of those things because they have to be,” she said. “But also I think (parents) are worried about, ‘Are we doing what’s right for them?’”

Westbrock recently sat in on a webinar hosted by Cornell University discussing taking care of children during a crisis situation. She took away five major tips for parents and plans to start sharing them out through social media as a way to help parents who might need a little extra support right now.

And she encourages everyone in the community to pitch in where they can in terms of mental health.

“Continue to have contact — even if it’s on a smaller scale — with people that we know are struggling or needing a bit of a pick-me-up,” she said. “We’ve had some really amazing things that have come up through some of the work that we do, so we know we just have to keep going down that path, and we just really try to hone in on those demographics that need the extra touch right now.”



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.