PALESTINE — Children's eyes grew large as a jolly man in a red suit burst through the doors of the meeting room at the Palestine Hampton Inn and Suites Wednesday.
Cries of joy escaped audibly at the sight, as the teacher, Beth Boger, stood back with a watchful eye. She stepped forward.
“If you're quiet, Santa will call your name,” Boger announced.
The 20 pre-K children who make up the Head Start program at Elkhart Elementary School hadn't seen this coming — when their holiday field trip would culminate with a visit from everyone's favorite North Pole citizen.
The federally funded Head Start program promotes school readiness in children, up to age 5, from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social and emotional development. At their teacher's urging, the happy group attempted to restrain their excitement.
After a quick “Ho, ho, ho!” Santa got down to business and began calling each child by his or her name. Some students scampered to the front with the enthusiasm of a reindeer, while others approached bashfully with tilted heads and timid smiles.
Head Start Site Facilitator Becky Hoag stood off to the side with Boger as both pulled treasures from Santa's sack of gifts. As each student climbed into the jolly character's lap, the two ladies would ensure that they left with a gift — in this case, a fluffy stuffed Christmas bear.
“I want a Barbie house and dolls!” one girl told Santa. Parents observed in the background with cameras and smiles.
Hoag said that the event is a special one, held annually for students involved in the Elkhart Elementary Head Start program. She said it was nice to be able to put a smile on the children's faces and she was grateful that the Hampton Inn and Suites had stepped in to sponsor the event for the first time — a sentiment shared by Assistant General Manager Jackie McClinton.
“We're always looking for opportunities to give back to the community,” McClinton said. “And we just felt really blessed that we were able to step up and make this happen for the kids.”
The hotel's sponsorship of the event included a tour of the grounds led by McClinton and General Manager Alex Patel, and the party in the meeting room afterward with crafts, cookies, gifts and the surprise visit from Santa. During the tour, Patel had taken some students up to the roof, by which he later explained that Santa had “just landed.”
McClinton said that some of the children had never seen the inside of a hotel before.
“The big thing for the kids was swiping their keys,” McClinton said, noting that each child got to go through “the check-in experience” with their own hotel key. “We just were all so blessed that we were able to do that for them. We just all had a really good time.”