WIMAUMA – During a season famous for excesses, it wasn’t Santa, the prospect of receiving a gift or the myriad holiday decorations that most captivated 6-year-old Melissa Chavez.
It was a simple candy cane.
“This is what I like best about being here,” said the little girl, brandishing her candy.
Mark Haggett, principal of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association Charter School in Wimauma, wasn’t surprised by Chavez’s choice.
“A lot of these kids are having first-time experiences here today,” he said of the 38 kindergarteners who accompanied him to the 14th annual Christmas party at the nearby Hometown America Little Manatee community Dec. 4.
“These are the children of migrant farmworkers who are just learning English,” Haggett continued. “Many have never had the opportunity to sit on Santa’s lap. And some would have no Christmas gift without the generosity of our neighbors here. The things you and I take for granted are new and exciting to these kids.”
For the residents of Hometown Little Manatee, formerly Little Manatee Springs, hosting the party is equally memorable.
“It’s just a great community outreach,” said resident Ruby England. “Most of us don’t have our grandchildren living nearby so it’s always special to see the joy on the faces of these children.”
The party was the brainchild of the late Gert Tyler, who wanted to share the holiday season with children in need.
One of the early party organizers, Belva Snyder, said the entire community promptly pitched in to help host the youngsters at the park’s clubhouse.
“It just became a community tradition,” said Snyder. “We love to watch how excited the children get when they come here.”
To provide a festive atmosphere, the 400 residents decorate their homes for Christmas shortly after Thanksgiving. The children are then treated to a ride through the community in golf carts with a special stop at the home of Ron and Claudia Cahill.
A model railroad buff, Ron Cahill sets up a miniature holiday village in his garage with seven model trains running through the village simultaneously.
“Whether you’re a little kid or entering your second childhood like me, these model trains are so neat,” said Cahill. “I love sharing them with the kids.”
Following the tour, the children enjoy games and crafts, lunch and a visit from Santa in the clubhouse, thanks to donations from area businesses.
“We couldn’t do this party without our sponsors and all of the residents who volunteer to help,” said this year’s party chairwoman, Judith Henn. “It’s a lot of work to put on but it’s well worth it.”
Haggett said the residents’ efforts are appreciated.
“Just look at the smiles on these faces,” he said. “This party is one of the highlights in the lives of these children, something they remember and talk about years later.”
D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]