When the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic trimmed her substitute teaching contract, Joy (Sage) Gatz ’00 considered how she might make up the lost income for her family. Living up to her first name, she sought to find a solution to her own family’s woes but also to boost the spirit of families craving a little bit of joy in 2020.
So, she scoured Facebook Marketplace and negotiated the purchase of a sleigh she could afford with money she had saved from tutoring. A big sleigh. She sanded, primed, and with the help of her daughter, Allie, 13, painted it red. Then she set up a sanitized, socially distanced, and safe holiday experience atop the sleigh for families to enjoy. And the appointments started coming and the smiles and memories commenced.
“I think more than anything, it’s affirmed that I need to do more of this,” she said. “I won’t get rich doing it but it certainly warrants knowing that people will pay for these services, and maybe I can put more time into doing it because it will help my family, and I think it’s definitely helped bridge that gap.”
She has worked as a substitute teacher at Hunt Club Elementary School, a K-5 school in Oswego, Ill., for three years. As the fall of 2020 arrived, she learned her full-time hours would be trimmed to three days per week at a lesser rate. She started to consider how to make up the lost pay to continue helping to support her family, husband, Pete, and daughters, Allie and Mackenzie.
“She always says, ‘We'll figure out a way’,” said Joy’s husband, Pete Gatz ’98, whom she met at Carroll. They just celebrated 19 years of marriage. “I don't want to say magically it happens but we usually figure out a way to make it work.”
Pete is an elementary school principal and sees first-hand as an educator how some families are struggling emotionally and economically, not being able to have big holidays, not being able to spend time with others, and trying to make sure everyone is safe. He said Joy’s sleigh idea is “an opportunity to share in happiness around the holiday season that might be void for people right now.”
After Joy’s first appointment, she texted the mom looking for feedback of the holiday experience. The mom texted back, “It was so amazing in every way. I really hope you do this every year. My girls won’t top talking about it. Thank you for making the magic alive for my only believer.” Families pre-register and Joy requests bits of information from parents about the children that she can share during the visit to help them smile and drop tidbits into conversation that only Santa might know.
In the “Joyful Christmas Experience,” she is in her joyous character with a red velvet dress and white plush trim, candy cane-colored eyeliner, and a claim to be part of the staff from the North Pole. She provides families the choice of three price points—$25, $50, $100—that range from a simple do-it-yourself photo and time on the sleigh to a full photo session by Joy, handcrafted Reindeer Food Christmas ornament, an authentic magical 2020 ribbon embellished bell for each child, and a template letter to Santa. She also offers children the opportunity to write a letter to Santa and drop it into a mailbox she has on site. Joy has thought of every way to keep people safe so each person gets their own pen to keep.
Born just a week before Christmas on December 18, Joy doesn’t just love the spirit of the season. For those who know her, she is the spirit of the season. “I think the foundation of who I am blossomed at Carroll. I feel like Carroll was more than just learning. The relationship building and connection and feelings that Carroll gave me—that’s what Christmas does for me. Carroll taught me the value of relationships.”
She has fun referring to herself these days as “Santa Joy,” a title she kept after competing in a nationally-televised reality TV show in 2015 called “Santas in the Barn.” While she didn’t take home the top title, she did make a lot of friends and fellow Santas around the country and said the experience of being Santa “magnified the possibilities for me.”
She said she thought, “Wow. I can create something contagious, create a positive energy and bring people happiness,” a goal she would turn into reality five years later with the purchase of a Santa sleigh.
Joy added, “People will say, ‘How long have you loved Christmas?” I will say ‘43 years.’ Right? Ever since I was born.”