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Santa Claus delivers the gift of literacy in Bogue Chitto

Larry Russell spends most of his time pastoring the congregation at Montgomery Baptist Church in Summit. But when the calendar turns to December, he transforms from an inconspicuous country parson into the embodiment of Father Christmas.

For nearly a decade, he has sported a custom-made crimson suit, cultivated his milky whiskers and patiently listened to the holiday wish lists of countless children.

Monday, he dashed over to the Bogue Chitto Attendance Center in his yuletide regalia and gave the school’s K-2 students each a free book to kick start their holiday season.

“I just feel like it is such a precious memory for these children to get to meet Santa and to know that he cares about their education,” Bogue Chitto librarian Kim Nelson said.

Russell, a former schoolteacher, recently started a local program called “Santa’s Gift of Reading” with the long-term goal of giving every child in Lincoln County a new book at Christmastime.

“To do that will take a lot of money, and a preacher like me doesn’t make much,” he said laughing. “But I figure there are people in the county who see this need as much as I do and will want to help.”

Originally from Lincoln County, Russell spent several decades living near Jackson. When he moved back home, the deficient reading scores pouring out of area schools astonished him. So, he decided to help spark a change.

“We all would love to have a lot of high paying jobs and industries move into our part of the state, but they won’t do that unless we see an improvement in these reading scores,” Russell said. “So, I’m going to do what I can to help.”

So far, he has been able to reach the youngest students at Bogue Chitto and make a general contribution to the library at Mamie Martin Elementary School. But he hopes to do more in coming years.

After giving Santa a quick hug, kindergartener Turner Fortson said, “It feels awesome to get a book.”

Russell takes playing St. Nicholas very seriously. He is a graduate of the International School of Santa, he has undergone a nationwide background check and he carries special liability insurance, all so he can spread a little Christmas joy.

“I wish we would pause every now and again and think about the real history of Christmas, especially the first Christmas,” he said.

Anyone interested in supporting Russell’s effort to encourage literacy in Lincoln County can do so by making a donation at State Bank downtown. Russell said to ask a teller for details and make checks payable to Merry Christmas Mississippi, LLC.

“That first Christmas shows us that we’re here to give, and that’s one thing I like to pass on to the children who listen to my story” Russell said.

Story by Trapper Kinchen