MANATEE -- Santa Claus arrived by helicopter Thursday morning at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport Fire Department to inspect one of the southernmost workshops in his operation and to give toys to a special group of children.
Among those who wore a dusting of white from a "firefighter foam" snowfall Thursday morning were Bradenton's Nicole Sprout and her son, James "Jamie" Sprout, 8, who screamed with glee when he saw Santa.
"Ever since Jamie came to this event four years ago, when he sees or hears a helicopter, he sees Santa in his mind looking at him," said Nicole, who attended Thursday's 29th Annual Flight to the North Pole with Jamie's grandmother, Jan "Nayna" Sprout. "He believes in Santa. He believes in the North Pole. He believes in Christmas."
Jamie cheered as Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube and airport Fire Chief Bill Quinn greeted Santa with a hug. Every year, the event turns the airport's fire department into Santa's North Pole workshop, complete with green-clad elves and green-clad deputies, such as Mark Paxton, to help carry the toys from Santa.
"We interact with the kids so they are not afraid of us," Paxton said.
"Flight to the North Pole" was begun as a small event in 1985 by Eastern Airline flight attendants for ill children and their families. Shortly after that, Sidney Ettedgui, now of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, took it over and it has since grown so large that Ettedgui currently gets help from Sahib Shrine, the 27-member Tabernacle Christian School Children's Chorus, the Sarasota/Bradenton Airport Fire Department, Ed and Gail Straight's Wildlife Inc. (which brought three owls), Home Depot (which brought hammers and wood), McDonalds (which brought Happy Meals for every child), Olive Garden, Gio's and other volunteer agencies and businesses.
"Sidney is the unspoken hero," said volunteer Dana Gourley.
Shortly after Santa arrived Thursday, he handed out toys to hundreds of children invited by Children's Medical Services.
Jamie, who has a mitochondria disorder that impacts his cells, causing a loss of motor control, got a private audience with Santa, Mrs. Claus and a band of elves, as did the other kids.
When Jamie finally saw Santa, Santa boomed out, "Ho. Ho. Ho. Hello Jamie."
Santa gave Jamie a set of Lego Racers, a "Cars" Pixar movie Action Shifter toy called "Radiator Springs 500."
"He loves the Disney Pixar movies, especially 'Cars I' and 'II,'" Jamie's mother said.
Santa also gave Jamie "Cars" Drift Speedway, a Thomas the Tank Engine wooden train and track set and some clothes.
"Thank you Santa, this is what I have wanted for years," Jamie told St. Nick.
Before he left, Jamie said to Santa, "See you soon. Don't forget to come to my house. I love you."
"I love you, too, Jamie," Santa said.
Nicole Sprout was overjoyed.
"I look forward to every moment that he is happy," Sprout said of her son, who is home-bound.
Flight to the North Pole is magical for children, but is just as special for the adults, said Debbie Steube, the sheriff's wife.
"When you see the kids' faces when Santa arrives, it's unforgettable," she said. "They are so excited."
The elves are thrilled to see the children's reaction to them.
"It's a great experience," said elf Ashley Eannarino, 30, a sheriff's office crime analyst who greeted children as they came into the North Pole workshop, along with fellow elves Erica Chenard, 30, a fellow crime analyst, Nikki Valint, 29, a senior administrator with the sheriff's office, Taylor Best, 17, and Makayla Chenard, 8, one of the youngest elves.
Based on the size of her elf ears, the head elf seemed to be Jean Carroll of Home Depot, who stands 4-foot-10 and who can speak in a high-pitched voice.
"But I only talk like an elf for kids," she said.
It's something special.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.