Northside Kiwanis keeps Christmas tradition alive for 4,000 in Immokalee

David Albers/Staff - 
Thirteen-year-old Bryan Gustave, of Immokalee, puts on his a new yellow hat he received from Santa and Mrs. Claus at the annual Christmas in Immokalee celebration in Airport Park on Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, in Immokalee.

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David Albers/Staff - Thirteen-year-old Bryan Gustave, of Immokalee, puts on his a new yellow hat he received from Santa and Mrs. Claus at the annual Christmas in Immokalee celebration in Airport Park on Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, in Immokalee.

IMMOKALEE _ Christmas came to the Collier County farming town of Immokalee on Tuesday, but it wasn’t just Santa’s sleigh and reindeer pulling off the feat.

Northside Naples Kiwanis Club delivered the holiday to Airport Park in U-Haul trucks loaded with food, toys and good cheer for thousands of Immokalee residents who wouldn’t have had Christmas, or even a hot meal, any other way.

"It means a lot," said Luis Garcia, 29, an unemployed farmworker with four children between 4 and 9 years old. "We come out to see the spirit. Spending time with family is what it's all about."

For the 28th year, the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club and some 200 volunteers put on the celebration, the club's signature event and one that takes months to plan. The club planned to bring Christmas to 4,000 people this year.

"It's a big effort," said club President Bill Ricigliano, as impromptu Christmas Day volunteers came up to ask what they could do to help.

The park bustled with activity. Some 300 children and parents waited in line for a chance to climb up a ramp to the park's stage to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, an event Ricigliano guessed might mark the first time some families have ever had their photos taken.

Popular Christmas music poured out of loudspeakers while children picked out their toys, stuffed small stockings with candy, had their faces painted or munched on popcorn, Sno-cones and cotton candy. Some took pony rides.

Pinecrest Elementary sixth-grader German Brito, 12, chose a shiny new soccer ball from among the collection of basketballs, footballs, scooters, archery sets, toy cars, dolls and make-believe dress-up kits.

"It's like a celebration where everybody gets together, everyone can be safe at one time — and happy," German said.

Just like Santa, the Kiwanians started loading up their goodies Christmas Eve, visiting some 20 Publix stores in the area to receive leftover breads, pies and cakes. Loaves of bread were piled high on a long row of tables. Pastries were cut into pieces and put into towers of Styrofoam containers.

Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers donated 8,000 hot dogs and 5,000 hamburgers to be cooked on smoky grills for the crowd to eat or take home; what didn't get cooked would be given to Immokalee Friendship House, a homeless shelter, Ricigliano said.

He said the annual event is rooted in the kindness of a woman who would open her house to feed the homeless each Christmas. Her dying wish was for the Kiwanis to continue the tradition.

The event takes some $30,000 to stage each year, most of which is donated from anonymous families and businesses, including medical device manufacturer Arthrex, Ricigliano said.

Waiting in line to pick out a toy, Immokalee High School junior Angela Vanniere, 16, said she was too old to climb on Santa's lap but not too old to soak up the Christmas spirit.

"I think it's cool, it's very cool," she said. "It's like our family tradition."

Garcia, the unemployed farmworker, said he has one more wish for Christmas.

"Hopefully tomorrow there will be some work," he said.

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