Rotary spreads some Christmas cheer

Children enjoying the famous tractor ride at Uncle Willys party.

It’s a busy time of year for 73-year-old Paul de Groot, who is preparing tractors, among other things, in preparation for his 48th year as host of the Uncle Willy’s Christmas Parties.

The parties, an institution for many Cape Town children, take place on the grounds of Marsh Memorial Children’s Home in Rondebosch, over about 20 evenings in December, and are organised by Claremont Rotary. The last one for this year takes place tonight, Thursday December 22.

One hundred and twenty children (and their families) attend the action-packed event every night, which culminates in Father Christmas arriving on a sleigh piled high with Christmas presents for everyone.

Mr De Groot is the original Uncle Willy, the friendly host who, in his cowboy hat, holds the three-hour shows together by introducing Noddy, Big Ears and the Christmas Fairy, not to mention the magicians and musicians. He also makes sure that tractor rides work according to plan and that the legendary straw fight doesn’t get out of hand.

“We follow the same story every year and the children love it,” he says.

He recounts how, at one point, Father Christmas gets upset because the Christmas Fairy is late. When she arrives, she lights up the trees and brings sweets for everyone. “I admire the parents who come with their children every year, for six to nine years in a row,” he jokes.

The parties are not meant to make money, but rather to provide holiday fun for children and their parents. They are run entirely by volunteers, mainly from Rotaract (Rotary’s service club for 18- to 30-year-olds). Parents bring one gift for each of their children, while the children themselves bring something of theirs to give to an underprivileged child who wouldn’t normally receive a Christmas present. This teaches children the gift of giving from a young age. All profits and donations received are spent on Rotaract’s service projects.

Mr De Groot initiated Uncle Willy’s Christmas Parties when he himself was a Rotaract member, aged 25, after he had helped out at the original Uncle Paul’s parties in Constantia for a few years. “There’s no time for boredom. It’s fun,” he says. The retired advertising executive, whose hobbies include breathing new life into vintage cars and motorbikes, is also an active member of the Rotary Club of Claremont. From the beginning, and later as a trustee, he played a key role in the phenomenal growth of the Cape Town Cycle Tour which the club co-owns with the Pedal Power Association as equal partners of the CTCTT (Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust).

“In 1983, it was suggested that Rotarians volunteer to marshal and handle logistics for the Cycle Tour; we haven’t looked back since. There were only about 1 500 cyclists participating when I first saw it. It was and still is a fantastic way for us to raise funds for various Rotary projects,” he says.

Already familiar with hosting Uncle Willy’s Christmas parties, it was no surprise that Mr De Groot was handed the responsibility of being the starter at the Cycle Tour, something he has done every year for 33 years. “I came up with the Hoopla thing and now if I don’t do it, then I’m in trouble,” he laughs.

Wary of the spotlight, Mr De Groot is shy to discuss recognition he has received for his loyal contribution to Rotary’s projects in Cape Town and beyond. In addition to his involvement in the Cape Town Cycle Tour and Uncle Willy’s Christmas parties, Mr De Groot is also a founding director of the Reach for a Dream Foundation, and is on the board of Marsh Memorial Children’s Home. Rotary’s World President awarded Mr De Groot the World Community Service Award in honour of his loyal contribution to Rotary’s projects. “I’m not a sports person. I don’t play cricket or rugby, so this is my sport,” says Mr De Groot.

He hints that he is not done yet and is already planning another big event for one of Rotary’s beneficiaries. “It’s still under wraps for now,” he says with a big smile.

For more information on Rotary Club of Claremont and the various community projects and initiatives they are involved with, visit