Beyond the Badge, Community Involvement

Being Santa is tradition for DJ Cunning

Volunteer Santa DJ Cunning at a school with thank you sign behind him addressed to prison staff.
Santa, aka DJ Cunning, visits Alpaugh Elementary School along with other SATF staff.

SATF volunteers help Alpaugh school students

Dannion “DJ” Cunning is one of many CDCR and CCHCS volunteers who put on the Santa suit to spread holiday cheer.

Cunning began his correctional career at the Academy in November 2001, reporting to the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) as a correctional officer in March 2002.

He promoted at SATF, becoming a correctional counselor in 2013, then correctional counselor II and finally in 2021, a correctional counselor III for the Division of Rehabilitative Programs.

For six years, he’s been putting on the Santa suit to serve his community.

“I played Santa at a charity thrift store in Corcoran the first year and then at Alpaugh Elementary School, where I’ve been Santa ever since,” he said.

Partnering with school to provide presents

“That’s easy, Santa Claus is iconic. There is not one person in the US that does not know who Santa is and what he looks like. This is especially true with the young people we provide presents to at Alpaugh Elementary School. Every kid knows who Santa is,” he said.

The most fun comes from the younger children, who are in awe of Santa’s visit.

“The little ones are especially fun to be around, let’s say pre-kindergarten through third Grade. These kids are all in so they all believe I am the real Santa. Of course I put on a show with the ‘ho-ho-ho’ and all of that,” he said. “The greatest thing is even the shyest child wants to be around Santa. The real special thing is all the hugs I get as the kids are leaving, they go out of their way to get their Santa hug. It really is sweet.”

With the older kids, he takes a different approach.

“The older kids are different with most of them aware I am not the real Santa. When I first started playing Santa, I discovered if I didn’t disrespect their intellect, the day would go much more smoothly. So with the older ones, I do the Santa shtick, but I also tell corny jokes,” he said.

Some good news for prison staff, public

Positive news stories about prison staff are rare, he said, so this is a good way to show a different side to the public.

“Prisons get a bad rap. I don’t think the public really knows what we do for the communities in our area. I have been lobbying for years to have the press cover the event,” he said.

Before he was Santa, he regularly volunteered in his children’s school.

“When both my children were small, I volunteered daily in their elementary classes as I was on Third Watch, which allowed me to do so. Part of my duties was reading stories to the children which they seemed to enjoy as I would do character voices. I remember reading The Hobbit to my oldest son’s fourth-grade class. Those voices were fun,” he said.

Santa isn’t the only holiday character he’s played at a school.

“While I never played Santa back then, I did do a couple of stints as the Easter Bunny,” he said.

Since every Santa needs helpers, Cunning’s coworkers are always ready, including the warden.

“Warden Theresa Cisneros has played Mrs. Claus for several years. Most of the helpers dress up ranging from full elf costumes and Christmas sweaters to their CDCR Class A uniforms,” Cunning said. “Most are CDCR employees who run the gamut of classifications.”

After six years of being Santa, he has no plans to stop.

“This event is especially good for these kids at this particular school. I believe it is important to keep up this tradition. For many of these kids, this is the only time they will have their picture with Santa. As I told Warden Sherman, and then Warden Cisneros, I would keep doing it as long as they would have me,” he said.

Cunning offers tips for other Santa volunteers

If other employees are considering volunteering as Santa, Cunning has some advice.

Have a decent Santa suit: “Having a good, well-made Santa outfit is key. If you can’t grow a real Santa style beard, get a high quality fake wig and beard. The cheap ones itch something fierce and don’t look very good. Buy a quality set and you won’t be sorry.”

Get into the Santa spirit: “Ham it up. No one wants a boring Santa. If you are reading stories, attempt to stay in character and use voices if you can. It makes the experience all the more enjoyable for the kids.”

Have fun: “I think the key to being a good Santa at the school is not to take yourself too seriously. Just go out there, have fun, do your thing and everything else will fall into place.”

Other CDCR Santa stories:

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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