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Originally published in the Manchester Journal Dec. 20, 2017. 

MANCHESTER — The children were nestled all snug in their seats as steam began to billow from the Green Mountain Express, and the elves lined up with hot cocoa in hand.

For the sixth year in a row, the Manchester Lion’s Club is celebrating a successful weekend of Elf Express train rides from Manchester to Arlington, serving over 2,000 participants. This year, the Lion’s Club set a goal of raising over $10,000, though final figures aren’t yet available, with all funds distributed back to the community by the organization.

“We give all of our money back to the community, we don’t take any, and we try to give tickets away to people who really deserve it,” said Lions Club member and Elf Express Coordinator Nikki Dexter. “It’s fun, and it brings the community together in this sense of happiness and joy.”

Throughout the weekend families clamber onto rail cars at Manchester’s Depot Station, led by volunteers decked out as conductors. Waiting on the train are student volunteers from Burr and Burton Academy, ready to sing, dance, and disperse hot chocolate. According to BBA Creative Arts faculty member Jim Raposa, the event provides a fun community service opportunity for his students.

“Any student that participates in the Elf Express gets a ton of community service hours, and they get a chance to go out and do community service with a group of people who are focused on entertaining,” he said. “All of these kids love to perform, make kids laugh, and have a great time, so the community service hours are almost secondary to that experience.”

Though BBA students have volunteered every year since the Elf Express’ inception, Raposa notes that the performance has been refined over time. Now, the show features an original script, original music written and recorded by BBA students, choreography created by students, and student-led direction.

“It gives them an honest life skill, to be in charge of this whole thing,” Raposa said. “I think that this collaboration between Burr and Burton and the Lions Club is really amazing, because neither of us could do it by ourselves. In coming together we’re able to create this really great experience for the community, which then in turn benefits from the money that is raised.”

“We have been training for at least two weeks or more, every single day,” said BBA international student Alejandra Broano, of Ecuador. “On the Elf Express everyone is excited. I think that’s the best part, how the kids yell when we’re performing and how happy they are when Santa comes. Just the little, simple things.”

BBA students aren’t the only piece of the puzzle, however. According to Dexter the Lions Club enjoys help from over 60 volunteers each year, working to plow and salt, set up decorations at both the Manchester and Arlington stations, collect hot chocolate, and more.

“We have so much help from the community, we could not do this without any of the volunteers,” she said. “I think that community effort is really what the Elf Express is all about.”

“We have different organizations that are helping us; we have Reading Partners for tickets, we have the Boy Scouts that help us with the hot chocolate, and just a lot of volunteers that have joined in,” said Manchester Lions Club President Penny Charbonneau. “We’ve really involved a lot of people in the community.”

Though the event takes an immense degree of planning and coordination, she says, it’s the excitement that builds around the Elf Express that makes the effort worthwhile.

“People look forward to it each year, and we’re building on it each year,” Charbonneau said. “It’s just a great fundraiser, and a great event.”

“I hear from people all of the time saying that this has become a family tradition and that they don’t want to miss it,” Dexter added. “I just love hearing the families stories about why they come. I hope that when I have kids someday there are events like this that bring the community together.”

Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.

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