Manatee Every time 11-year-old Jamie Sprout hears a helicopter overhead, he excitedly waves, thinking Santa is riding along.
“He believes in Santa 100 percent,” said Jamie’s mother, Nikki Sprout.
The look of excitement Thursday on the 11-year-old boy’s face as Santa handed him toys had so much energy it could have powered a light bulb.
“Thank you so much Santa! I love you, I’ll always believe in you,” Jamie said, wrapping old St. Nick in a hug.
Jamie had been worried that, after they moved to a new home in Bradenton this year, Santa would not be able to find him.
But when Santa revealed exactly the gifts Jamie had asked for, his fears were erased.
With some help, Jamie collected his toys from the floor and climbed back into his fully decorated wheelchair. After an afternoon of crafts, food and Santa visits at the 32nd annual Flight to the North Pole, it was time to go back to the real world.
Sprout said they were told Jamie would be on a ventilator by the time he was 10 years old. Now, at 11, she says he’s “beating all the odds.”
Jamie has been coming to the event for six years and was one of the first in line to hug Santa when the man in the red suit stepped out of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office helicopter and into a crowd of waiting families Thursday afternoon. It’s not quite the sleigh and reindeer that most imagine Santa flying in with but for Jamie, it was just as magical.
The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport Fire Department station had been transformed into a make-shift North Pole. It’s all part of an ongoing effort by Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, the fire department, local businesses and volunteers to give children with terminal illnesses a piece of Christmas magic.
“It’s huge. I’m a single mom,” Nikki Sprout explained. “With everything due at the end of the year, without this he wouldn’t have much of a Christmas.”
And that’s exactly what the event, started by Eastern Airlines flight attendants in 1985, aims to do, said Sheriff Rick Wells.
“Today is just about giving back to kids that really deserve a special day. And that’s all we want to do today is to give them an opportunity not to be thinking about their sickness or their illness, and just allow their family and them to have a good time out here and to visit, talk with Santa,” Wells said. “It’s really all about them.”
Outside Santa’s greeting room, the fire department’s building was bustling with the 153 children and their families who attended the Flight to the North Pole.
Smiles stretched from ear to ear on children and adults alike as they ventured from one activity to another to the sounds of Christmas carols.
“If I can give them a special day, if my staff and I can help them in any way, that’s what we want to do,” Wells said.
Children were occupied with crafts, face painting, singing, being led in circles on horseback and whizzing down a slide coated with ice on an inner tube for a sledding-like experience.
“The way they put this on is so amazing. They just have the children in mind in every part of this,” Zena Langdon said.
Langdon brought four children ranging in age from 1 to 9 years old - and two adults to help - to the Flight to the North Pole. Some of the children are fostered but all of them, she said, were either on the fetal alcohol or autism spectrum.
“There’s not one that hasn’t been fighting a battle from day one,” Langdon said.
Thursday, they could stop worrying about their battles and have fun. Most of her children took the opportunity to strap on a helmet and take a short horseback ride as they were led around in a small circle.
“They love the horses, but they love seeing Santa come in on the helicopter,” Langdon said.
She said it’s something the older children look forward to, now that they have been to the event for a few years.
“They were so excited this morning, saying, ‘Is it the day?’” Langdon said.
Thursday morning, she got to tell them the day was finally here.
But spreading the Christmas spirit doesn’t end with Thursday’s event. This year, the event’s organizers are taking Santa and his crew on the road to local schools later this month to deliver gifts to even more children.