When Sandra Norman steps into another character, it’s a form of escapism for both her and anyone in the room.
Understanding the weight of life’s daily worries, she comes ready to laugh and won’t stop until there’s a smile on everyone’s face.
“My mom said that I was very unsure as a young child but she figured if I got out and performed, it would bring me out of it and it sure did,” Norman says. “I love that when you go on, you forget everything and just do it.”
So every Christmas Day for the last 37 years, Norman has been dressing up as Mrs. Claus to bring cheer at Mills Memorial Hospital and Terraceview Lodge for those who can’t go home. She visits each patient, taking the time to get to know them and remind them of the festivities as she presents them a gift.
Norman started volunteering her time as Mrs. Claus when she first moved to Terrace and heard there wasn’t anything special happening at the hospital for the holidays. As a performer her entire life, always keen to take an opportunity to put on a costume, she dressed up in the iconic red coat with white fur trims and never stopped since.
“I knew I had to do something when I came here… and I really enjoy going to the hospital because there are some people that just don’t get to enjoy Christmas or anything else,” says Norman.
Her efforts were quickly recognized by Save-On-Foods, who to this day continuously donate items from their store for the cause. She says their generosity always takes her by surprise when each year they give her a shopping cart and tell her to fill it with whatever she wants for the patients. She’s also teamed up Gemma’s and with local crafters to create unique gifts to distribute.
Although she tries to be jolly and festive when entering a hospital room, she says it takes a lot to ignore the reality of the situation. Over the years, she’s seen many people suffer through difficult illnesses and knew they would never live to see another Christmas again.
One time dressed as Mrs. Claus, she came into the room and was immediately recognized by the patient. For days he hadn’t spoken but upon seeing her, he announced that he would soon be passing. His wife sat there in tears as he spoke his final words to Norman and hours later, she got the call that he had indeed made the journey over.
She says that when she was younger, she had an easier time dealing with the emotional hardships but at the age of 75, it has begun to hit home.
A few years ago, she herself found herself in the hospital after suffering from a stroke. She was told to stay in her bed and expected to wait for the long hours to pass by for the next few months.
With a laugh, she says she always has a hard time admitting she was getting older and continuously got into trouble by hospital staff as she’d try to get out of bed. Eventually, she was able to pick herself up and began walking the halls.
“I said ‘I can’t stand this,’ so they gave me a walker. Well, of course I was ripping around all over the place,” she says. “Then I was helping other people in the unit so when the nurses went on the break, I told them I’d let them know if anything happened.”
Within a few weeks, she made a quick recovery and was released.
Norman adds that with age, a lot of people around her have begun to pass away and that it’s been difficult to accept this chapter of her life as she never thought it would come so fast.
Now when she enters the hospital, she’s reminded of all the people she lost and those dear to her that are fighting a downhill battle.
“I think now I feel lonely that many people I know have died and it just happens more and more,” she says. “But you can’t break down at any point… I tell myself I’m not here to bawl my eyes out, I’m here to help.”
Growing up in Montreal, Norman was recognized for her talent as a singer by her parents and was often brought into the hospitals to perform and read stories. She saw first-hand how healing it was for people to forget about their strifes.
Soon enough, her performances from the hospital room transitioned to bigger stages.
In her teenage years, she was placed as the lead singer of Golden Tones and later in Skyliners where she toured across Canada and the U.S.A. with the bands to perform at different shows and at military bases.
At the time, the world was on the edge with the Vietnam and Korean wars so she did what she could as a performer to ease those concerns for soldiers especially, even if it was temporarily.
“Going to the air force, army and navy bases at that time was memorable because they really needed the entertainment to forget all the horrific stuff they’ve seen,” says Norman.
She says she travelled the continent alongside many entertainers who became like family to her. At the time, it was unusual for a girl her age to be so independent in the industry but she never let that get to her. She continued to take the world by surprise as she was featured on T.V. and sang alongside the big names in music.
When she got married, she stepped away from performing to move around with her husband for his job. Wherever they moved to, she joined the local theatre group and volunteered to dress up for different events throughout the year. Whether it was the Easter Bunny, Dolly Parton on even just a tree — she was eager to put herself out there.
But performing wasn’t her only forte. Norman says she was always curious and willing to learn anything that interested her.
Throughout the years, she cared for animals, became a hairdresser, worked in firms, taught French at schools and even became a licensed practical nurse (LPN).
And to this day, she still visits patients’ homes as an LPN to check in on them. She’ll sit with them as they reflect on the lives they’ve had.
Coming home, she’s faced with similar challenges as her husband of 53 years grows ill and she provides aid at his bedside.
Although she recognizes that days can be difficult, she’s learned that the only way to get through them is to put on a smile and focus on all the good.
“You have to forget about the pain sometimes and just do it,” she says.
“You can’t go on and start worrying about every little thing… I tell myself that I’ve done what I can to make this world a little better.”