In a true example of Christmas magic, Austin Maners, 4, and the mall Santa that fed him cookies and milk in a viral photo were reunited.
Austin’s mom, Beth Salzbrenner took him to Glenbrook Square Mall Sunday to get a special picture with Santa. While they were there, they asked if Santa would take a photo while pouring “milk” (formula) into Austin’s feeding tube that he relies on.
Salzbrenner then posted the photo on her Facebook page, where it quickly went viral.
In an interview with WANE 15 earlier this week, Salzbrenner said she never got to give Santa a proper “thank you.” Well, she got that chance Wednesday morning.
After we told Austin and Santa’s story on Tuesday during First News, we got a special phone call from Bob Gudorf, also known as “Santa Bob.” He identified himself as the Santa in the viral photo and said he’d love to reunite with Austin and his mom.
WANE 15 helped arrange that meeting and got it all on camera.
Austin joyfully hopped up onto Santa Bob’s lap and greeted him like an old friend. Then mom Beth joined them on Santa’s chair and came through on her wish to thank him.
She hugged him with a smile on here face.
“I wanted to tell you thank you for that picture,” she said. “It meant a lot to us.”
Santa Bob responded by hugging Austin and his mom in true Santa style.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll take a hug from him is all the thanks I need,” Santa Bob said. “I’ll take a hug from both of you.”
Santa Bob then told us his side of the story behind the photo that had captured the area, and much of the world’s attention.
“My first thought was ‘why not?’ I didn’t know what I was getting into, but why not, I’ll try anything,” Santa Bob said.
He then explained why he was shaking so bad as he poured Austin’s formula into his feeding tube.
“I have a pinched nerve in my shoulder, so my hand shakes anyway, but I was nervous that I was going to spill it,” he recalled. “But it all worked out and I was just very pleased. The smile on his face, there again, just made my day.”
The photo of Santa Bob and Austin has been shared close to 57,000 times and has more than 131,000 reactions on Facebook. It was a response that Salzbrenner never expected.
“It’s just crazy,” she said. “You never think you’re gonna have a picture do that. You see everybody else’s pictures go viral, but you never expect your own picture to go viral.”
Although it was unexpected, Salzbrenner said she’s glad it’s gotten the response it has because she believes it’s helping educate people.
“People are learning and seeing that there’s all different kinds of disabilities, and that kids can be treated normal even if they have a disability,” Salzbrenner said.
Countless moms who also have children with feeding tubes reached out to Salzbrenner to thank her for posting the picture.
Dozens of other people have also pointed out to WANE 15 that this photo is just one of the many positive interactions Santa Bob has had with people in the community.
You can read some of those comments below.
Santa Bob was blown away by the outpouring of love and appreciation, but he said he was just doing his job.
“It’s part of Santa’s job to spread cheer wherever he can, and if there’s an opportunity, you gotta do it,” Santa Bob said. “If there’s a child in a wheelchair, or a Down Syndrome child, or a child with Autism, you gotta find a way to make it work for them to make the child happy.”
Santa Bob said he’ll continue to work hard to spread Christmas cheer at Glenbrook Square Mall during the holiday season. You can find hours and more information about pictures with him here.
As for Austin and his mom Beth, they expect things to go back to normal.
“We’re going to go back to normal life, and just be happy that we’ve gotten where we’ve gotten,” Salzbrenner said.