Santa for all seasons

Published 3:13 pm Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Younger pediatric patients have asked cartoonist Steve Barr if he is Santa Claus.

With his white beard and hair and twinkle in the eyes, the resemblance to Clement Moore’s jolly visitor is apparent, even when he’s behind the polycarbonate face shield of a disposable hood.

His visits, however, are not restricted to one date in December. By appointment with the medical staff, he can arrive from his home in Columbus almost any day of the year at a children’s medical facility.

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He always brings creativity and joy, plenty of paper, pens and pencils, and gifts. Sometimes, in addition to wearing the hood, he appears in a translucent plastic medical gown and non-latex surgical gloves required for isolation wards. Other times, a checkered shirt and Dockers will do.

Either way, every child he visits struggles with extreme medical challenges. At a bedside or in a group, Steve draws cartoons to help children escape into a magical place of happy possibilities and, there, teaches them how to populate it with their own fun characters. He also gives them art supplies so they can create and further explore on their own after he has gone.

“I leave feeling so uplifted,” Steve says. “I love watching grins spread when I say that the crayons and other art supplies are theirs, free to keep. I remember laughter and growing excitement during a visit. The children give back to me so much more than I could ever give to them.”

He gives one example that began with an urgent call. A heart transplant team wanted him to come to the hospital as soon as possible. Their 16-year-old patient was despondent.

He had his first heart transplant at age 3 and his second at 6. When Steve last visited him, prior to the third transplant, the boy confided that he wanted to grow up to be a cartoonist.

“The third transplant damaged his kidneys and he would need a kidney transplant,” Steve says.

He looks inward as he continues.

“It had been about two weeks since the operation and the team felt the boy was giving up. Would I come back and try to lift his spirits?

“After I was suited up in full sterile attire, looking into the isolation room at the boy, so tired and distant…I focused on what I could do to make this as much fun and distracting as possible for him.

“The joy in drawing cartoons has always been there for me. I wanted to give that joy to this boy, and to give it, I had to tap the energy of it within myself, and not feel the sadness of the room.” 

Steve stepped forward, unaware of the courage it took to battle the unthinkable, armed only with memories of previous successes, blank paper, pencil and pen, an abundance of good humor, and artistic talent exercised and strengthened over a lifetime.

Steve’s mother painted and encouraged her children to be creative. Steve remembers finger painting in kindergarten and writing and drawing comic books to sell to fellow fifth-graders for their lunch money.

“I would also create comic books about coursework to try and butter up teachers when I was late for an assignment,” he says.

“I always loved cartoons. I read the comics in three different newspapers.”

He remembers Snuffy Smith, in color and black and white, and the “Gene London Show,” a Philadelphia black and white TV production where the host taught kids how to draw cartoons.

“I was glued to the set when he was on, then doodled endlessly…never had time for formal training,” he says.

Steve’s TV lessons and practice have proven to be productive.

In seventh grade, he sold a cartoon to Venture Magazine for $7.50. In high school, he landed his first book illustration job. When a contract arrived special delivery from the publisher, Steve and his friends were stunned by what he was going to earn.

“Over the following years, I drew for Tribune Media Services, Bell Atlantic, The Complete Idiot’s Guides, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Multi-Ad Services, Impact Books, Peel Publications, Super Duper Publications, Childswork/Childsplay and many others,” he says. “But then, I lost all of my business when my brain swelled from Lyme disease.

“I was dying. My customers were loyal and understanding but they had deadlines that I couldn’t make. I recovered in time to be with my cousin, who was dying of cancer. I was frequently thinking about pain and death, wondering why my slate had been wiped clean, but felt compelled to draw and continued drawing to help brighten our time together.”

One by one, Steve’s happy critters carried him through the dark times.

“When I look at a blank sheet, I never know what might pop out of my hand and appear on the paper,” he says. “It’s always a surprise and the next great adventure.”

In 2014, he began his next adventure, giving free cartooning classes in hospitals to pleasantly distract pediatric patients during painful procedures and lengthy stays. As interest increased for his Drawn-to-Help Program, cartoonists in other areas started asking how they could do something similar. Grants funded the necessary art supplies.

Steve reports that 28 professional artists are now volunteers in five states. Donations have continued to fund the art supplies given now to more than 4,000 girls and boys. More volunteers, many well known, are waiting for additional funds so they can add hospitals and reach more children.

Children like the girl who lost use of her right arm from cancer and wanted to learn to draw cartoons for her mom with her left, or the hairless girl clutching art supplies to her chest, singing “I get to draw, I get to draw,” or the boy who survived three heart transplants and, facing a kidney transplant, still found smiles in what he was drawing.

“As he drew, I thought I could see his spirits lifting,” Steve says. “Two weeks later, I got the assurance I wanted from the nurses and doctors who had worked with him for so long. The boy had gone outside for the first time in more than eight months. He was soon back at the Ronald MacDonald house, and now, after the kidney transplant, he is home with his family.”

For more information about the nonprofit status of Drawn-to-Help, visit •

A photo waits in all things, all places, and everyone with a passion has a story to be told. That’s the perspective Vince Verrecchio, lightly retired ad agency creative director, brings as
a writer and photographer contributing to Life in our Foothills. He can be reached at