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Sun, surf & Santa: Lawton Chiles party brings Christmas to children

show details 7:49 PM (10 hours ago)ANNA MARIA -- Santa zipped out of the Gulf of Mexico on a Jet Ski on Tuesday for the 18th annual Lawton Chiles Kid’s Christmas Party, bringing new shoes, new clothes and a toy to each of nearly 100 children.

He didn’t have all those gifts on the Jet Ski, of course, but that didn’t matter to the children. They were just thrilled to see the jolly man in red and ran down to the water’s edge to meet him.

Santa got a lot of help from friends and staff at the Sand Bar Restaurant, some of whom were dressed as elves, pirates, Spider-Man or Big Bird.

In addition to all the goodies handed out at the restaurant patio, the children -- selected based on need by Head Start and Healthy Families Manatee -- got to bring their families and enjoy a meal overlooking the beach.

The annual party, which has grown from 25 kids, mirrors the concerns Chiles, former Florida governor and U.S. senator, had for families and children.

The number of families needing help also reflects the difficult economic times.

“The party was renamed for my dad after he died 13 years ago,” said Ed Chiles, owner of the Sand Bar, 100 Spring Ave.

Caryn Hodge of the Chiles Group said many corporate and private donors helped make the day possible.

Also helping out was Manatee Marine Rescue, which brought Santa to the beach on the Jet Ski.

“We want to thank everyone who donated to this great cause,” Hodge said.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021.