A magical journey for Polar Express volunteers



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Eric Pyra returns to Polar Express for a fifth year as Santa. Keisha Luce. (click for larger version)
December 16, 2009
LINCOLN—Eric Pyra starts growing his beard in August in order to make sure it's long and bushy enough to reprise his role as Santa in the Polar Express's journey to the North Pole.

Pyra is one of over 100 volunteers that make this fundraising event for the Believe in Books Literacy Foundation (BIBLF) possible. The BIBLF performance, based on Chris Van Attsburg's Caldecott Award-Winning story of a boy who takes a fantastical journey to the North Pole, originated 15 years ago in North Conway. Due to its immense popularity it was brought to Lincoln five years ago.

The journey begins at the Hobo Train station, where children, parents and those with the holiday spirit board the Polar Express train to be whisked away to the North Pole. While on board, volunteers greet visitors with "hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars" and "candy with nougat centers as white as snow." As the train pulls into the wooded North Pole there is a bright glow of Christmas lights and lanterns held by a sea of elves that lead passengers to Great Hall Theater. The North Pole Post Office is located nearby for those wishing to drop off their Christmas lists. Once the crowd is seated inside, and Christmas carol are sung, Van Attsburg's classic tale is read.

The theater erupts into applause when Pyra enters the stage as Santa and greets each child in the audience. "It's magic," he said, and "seeing the spirit of Christmas in the kids eyes" is what has called him back for a fifth year.

This sentiment was echoed by Eric Eccleston, who has been a volunteer since the opening of the Lincoln location. He volunteers for all 14 performances he said, for the "smiling faces, and happy people" and also added "to keep in shape for cross country season." Eccleston helps behind the scenes hauling hot cocoa to the train, preparing the trains for each performance and serving cocoa to guests.

Carrie Costello, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Foundation, said if it were not for volunteers like Pyra and Eccleston and the hundreds of others that help with tasks from greeting visitors to managing the sound and light for the performance, "this experience would not be possible."

Without the money raised from the Polar Express event the Believe in Books Literacy Foundation, a non-profit based in North Conway, would not be able to carry out their mission of furthering early literacy. This year they will visit 54 preschools with their "Books in Character" outreach program that combines storytelling and performance to encourage reading. Through this program they have donated 30,000 books to young readers in Carroll, Coös and Grafton Counties in New Hampshire and Oxford County in Western Maine. Books are also donated through their "Bookbag Program", offered at local libraries and schools that serve children age three to sixth grade and through the "Books from Birth" program, that provides free age appropriate books to children from infancy to fifth grade.

Due to the popularity of the Polar Express event, ticketing is done through a mail-in lottery in the fall. Names are randomly drawn and households are called on a previously announced day for the chance to purchase tickets. The Foundation is also supported by local inns and hotels that purchase a limited number of tickets for guests. A few remaining tickets are available for this season through the Lincoln Woodstock Chamber of Commerce for shows that run through Dec. 20th. To volunteer, BIBLF can be found on the Web at www.believeinbooks.org.

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