By Joel Hall
For the 12th year in a row, the staff at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport gave hundreds of local first-graders a Christmas that they will probably always remember.
The airport celebrated its annual "Holidays at Hartsfield" event on Friday at the former Georgia International Convention Center, behind the Sheraton Gateway Hotel on Sullivan Road.
Seven-hundred and thirteen first-grade students, from eight metro-Atlanta schools, were treated to balloon animals, games, educational goodie bags, music, lunch from Jason's Deli, and pictures with Santa Claus and his assortment of holiday helpers.
Jean Davis, administrative analyst of airport programs, said the event has grown from a small activity of 50 students inside the airport's atrium, into the large-scale happening involving more than 700 children.
She said the aim this year is the same as the first effort: To give needy children the chance to have a spectacular Christmas.
"When you get a group of students, you are going to see some kids who don't have as much as others," said Davis. "A lot of times, I've experienced that for a lot of these kids, it's the only Christmas they'll receive. [At the event], they get to see a lot of things that they might not usually see at Christmas."
This year, the students participating came from: Deerwood Academy, Bethune Elementary, Romar Academy, Unidos Dual Language Charter School, Heritage Elementary, Lake City Elementary, E.J. Swint Elementary, and Riverdale Elementary.
As students got off their buses, they were greeted by a red carpet with machines blowing bubbles galore. Volunteers dressed like elves, Sesame Street Characters, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse, greeted them as they waited to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus.
In addition to being treated to a puppet show and a magic show, the Japanese Consulate of Atlanta taught the children about Christmas traditions in Japan.
Monica Heredia, a first-rade teacher at Unidos Dual Language Charter School, said the event was special for the students and the teachers.
"The way they welcomed us to the building was surprising," said Heredia. "It makes you feel important. They're going to be talking about this a lot when we get back to school."
Dee Sinclair, who has played Santa at the event for the last six years, said it is commendable that the airport continues to bring Christmas to so many children.
"The fact that they bring in kids from so many communities ... that, in itself, is remarkable," said Sinclair. "That is why we do this every year. We don't make any other dates until we do this one.
"Anytime we can give anything back to the kids, that's wonderful," Sinclair added. "It's not about the costumes we wear; it's about the reason for the season."