Smiles for Santa in Manatee

MANATEE — The Morley twins danced, played, grinned from ear to ear, and of course gave Santa a big old hug Thursday at the 24th Annual Flight to the North Pole event for special needs children of low-income families in Manatee.

The girls, who both have cerebral palsy, will turn 4 on Christmas, but Thursday will be the highlight of their holiday season, according to parents Tammy and Michael Morley.

Tammy Morley said the family has fallen on hard times. She has lost her job, and they went homeless for a month recently, living out of their car.

“We finally found a home, and we are getting back on our feet. But things are still tough so this is their Christmas, and they love it,” she said.

The families of more than 70 special needs children were invited to the event sponsored by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport Fire Department.

A fire department hangar was filled with Christmas joy as hundreds turned out to eat and listen to a children’s choir belt out holiday tunes.

At a Home Depot crafts table, the kids also got the chance to be carpenters for a day.

“We like to give them a chance to work with and get to know tools,” said Home Depot representative Art Josten. “I really love working with the kids.”

Joshua Beck, 12, made himself a helicopter out of a kit supplied by Home Depot.

“It was my favorite,” he said.

Buck’s mother, Heidi, adopted Joshua and his sister, Gracie, from Russia. Both suffered abuse at a young age and have developmental problems, she said.

As a baby, Joshua Buck suffered severe burns and continues to have skin grafts years later. Heidi and her husband, Michael Buck, also adopted a third child from Russia, 6-year-old Caleb, whose motor skills are impaired, she said. He anxiously awaited Santa.

“I want to see Santa,” he said.

All of Buck’s children go through intensive therapy year round so the party Thursday brought much needed relief.

“It’s what makes Christmas for us,” she said.

After a Happy Meal lunch from McDonald’s for every child, the wait for Santa finally ended. And in grand fashion.

Santa flew to the hangar by helicopter and made a triumphant entrance to a cheering crowd.

Joshua Buck stood on a chair and waved his arms in the frenzy.

With his white beard and big belly, Santa greeted the kids with hugs and the familiar “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

“I think it’s really him. I think he’s real...I do, too,” a couple of children marveled as Santa hopped off the helicopter.

Santa came bearing plenty of gifts for the children. Prior to the event, each parent supplied the sheriff’s office with a list of their children’s dream gifts, said Sidney Ettedgui, who coordinated the event for the sheriff’s office.

Using donations from several fund-raisers and local businesses, every child received a $50 gift certificate from Wal-Mart and gifts from their lists.

The kids asked for everything from a laptop computer to dolls to an erector set.

“Each child got what they asked for,” said Ettedgui.

But for Diana Shirback, the smiles on the faces of her twin boys, Adam, who is autistic and blind, and Benjamin, who also suffers from a birth defect, was the true gift. The boys, 7, both suffer from immune deficiencies so they rarely can leave the house.

“They don’t get to get out much, so this is very special,” Shirback said. “They will probably get sick from this, but the outing once a year is worth it.”