By Laurie Krosney
sun staff writer
ANNA MARIA – Delighted cries of "Santa, Santa, Santa" rang out over the beach Tuesday as Santa Claus himself got off the back of a fire truck from West Manatee Fire & Rescue and moved among the children under the Sandbar pavilion.
The kids came from Head Start and from Healthy Families Manatee for an early Christmas. There were games, super heroes to hug, face painting, digging for treasure in the sand, a delicious lunch and best of all, a visit from Santa.
For the 14th straight year, employees of the Chiles Group of restaurants and community volunteers threw the Lawton Chiles Christmas party for the children. This year, there were 143 of them, the largest number ever.
"This is just my favorite thing," said Ed Chiles. "Each child gets new shoes, an outfit and a toy. And each family gets a complete turkey dinner with all the trimmings."
Pirates from the Privateers and several clowns greeted the children as they arrived.
The sound of Christmas carols wafted through the party played by DJ Patrick Bradley who donates his time and music each year.
Chiles recounted that the event began in 1993 with just 25 kids. It has built each year since then.
"This is just wonderful," Ed Chiles said as he surveyed the group sitting and having lunch.
All that good lunch resulted in what was arguably the quietest moment of the party.
Then from off in the distance came the sound of a siren. As it grew louder and closer, 143 pairs of eyes got bigger. The siren stopped, Santa stepped down, and the kids went wild. Some were a little overwhelmed, some were a little over excited, but all got the chance to approach Santa for a hug and an gift selected especially for him or her.
Community Volunteer Kitty Van Zile has helped with the party for several years.
"It just doesn’t get any better than this," she said.