MANATEE -- They're special needs children, but their parents were grateful that for once they were only being treated as special because they are children, rather than for their disabilities.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office held the 30th annual Flight to the North Pole on Thursday, hosting 117 children with special needs or terminal illnesses. Counting their families, more than 300 people attended the free event, which included gifts for the children, horse rides, crafts, clowns, music, food and Santa riding in on a helicopter.
"This is one of the few places that they get to come and there's no judgment," said Zena Langdon, a mother of four children and a foster child who have been coming for three years. "They're not seen for their disabilities. They're special here, and not because of their disabilities, but because they're little kids."
Langdon looked on as her children played in the fake snow, throwing snowballs at one another and shrieking with glee when they hit.
"I love the horses," said Langdon's 6-year-old daughter, Taya Langdon, who has cerebral palsy. "I'm going on them next."
Sheriff Brad Steube said this is one of his favorite events every year.
"Obviously, these are kids that have some health conditions. And I was just notified a couple of weeks ago that two of the kids that were here last year have passed away," Steube said. "So this is a really good thing for us to do for these kids."
Faino, a clown who has volunteered for the event for 29 of its 30 years, said he always adores working with the children. Sometimes the job can get emotional with the terminally ill children, because it could be their last Christmas.
"One year we had one little boy, and we came from the airport on the bus. And he and I got pretty close to each other, and I said, 'I'll see you next year,'" Faino said. "And he did show up the next year, and I was just so pleased that we got another year together."
Chance French, 9, who has paraplegia and Asperger's, has come to the Flight to the North Pole for the past seven years. One of his favorite parts this year was a robot brought by the sheriff's office.
"It's one of those police robots that lets you disarm bombs. I actually made the hand do this on my wheelchair," Chance explained, making a grabbing motion.
His mother, Susan French, stressed how grateful she is to the sheriff's office and the volunteers for the event, where her child can feel welcome and won't get unwanted attention.
"He doesn't get stares like we do sometimes when we're out in public. It's a great day for the whole family," French said. "It's such an accepting environment, and the sheriff's office always makes sure there's a bunch of cool things for the kids."
The appreciation from every parent was palpable. The simple gift of being surrounded by people who treated their children like normal kids resounded with everyone.
Dawn Albritton, the mother of 8-year-old twins, Savannah and Jayden, said even though her girls look like normal children, their developmental disabilities mean people treat them differently. At the Flight to the North Pole, she didn't have to worry about that. The young girls worked on crafts and carried around an Elsa doll and a Little Mermaid doll with huge smiles.
"When you look at them, they look normal, but when you compare them to other kids they're not normal, and that's when they get embarrassed," Albritton said. "And here, you know, if they trip and fall down nobody stares or looks at you funny, because they're all just kids."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby