More than 300 children with special needs from Gibsonton and Riverview elementary and middle schools will enjoy a brighter holiday season thanks to a party staged by the International Independent Showmen's Association on Monday.
The group, made up of members associated with the outdoor amusement industry, dedicates itself to making children and families happy at carnivals and fairs throughout the year. In what has become a tradition before the holidays, the association reaches out to disadvantaged and special-needs children with its annual party at its club along the Alafia River.
This year's party exceeded everyone's expectations, including Jamie Sharitz, ESE specialist at Eisenhower Middle School, who has been attending the event for years.
"This is so consistently special," Sharitz said. "The Showmen can't do enough for our kids. They walk in with their eyes lit up, like they're in heaven. Even our faculty is awestruck."
Children were treated to fruit, candy and cookies as well as an individual gift bag filled with coloring books, crayons, color markers, toys and many other goodies. No bag was left behind, as teachers brought the gifts back to their classrooms for the students who couldn't attend the party.
Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted the children and took their Christmas wishes, and a DJ and a master of ceremonies led entertainment for two hours, inspiring the children and adults with song and dance.
Even the bus drivers and teachers who attended the party with their students were not overlooked by the Showmen. They enjoyed the music and the merriment and a breakfast of juice, coffee and doughnuts.
Hiram "Scooter" Ryals, a food concessionaire for 60 years and president of the Showmen Shrine Club who helped organize and host the party, says the joy was contagious and very special.
"Everyone gets so excited about our Christmas party," Ryals said. "When I call for volunteers to help put the gift bags together for the children, people get overwhelmed. Our clown was crying tears of joy after the event, and although Santa and Mrs. Claus were warm from wearing their winter outfits most of the morning, they couldn't stop thanking us for being there."
The International Independent Showmen's Association's Charities Corp. has been sponsoring the Christmas party for children since 2000, when the group first took over the annual tradition from a now-defunct club called the Mullet Heads. Since then, the children's holiday party has grown steadily, and is expected to include more students and schools in southeastern Hillsborough County next year.
"We're looking forward to having more children attend; it's a good thing," said Ryals said, whose Showmen Shrine Club participates in several fundraising events throughout the year to support the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa.
"This is all about the kids and the community. For some children, this is their Christmas, so it's a nice way of pepping everybody up."
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.