Hundreds of special needs children were treated to a truly special event Monday morning when the Vikings of Solvang threw their 43rd annual Christmas party at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton.

A festive atmosphere filled the banquet hall, where more than 800 special needs children from as far away as Nipomo were served up lunch amid floating balloons and holiday decorations.

Such characters as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Grinch and Joe the Elf, one of Santa’s many Viking helpers, wandered through the busloads of students as they arrived, giving the kids high-fives or bending down to talk with them.

“This is my first time. I just barely fit,” said Joe the Elf, referring to his red-and-green suit. “Seeing the smiles on these kids’ faces is all worth it.”

In addition to lunch prepared by the Marriott, each child received a special gift from the Vikings and a bucket of cookies from Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery. The celebration also offered photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus, live music and Christmas carols.

“This is a real adventure for a lot of these kids,” said Chief Jim Saferite. “A lot of them never get to ride on a bus, get out and see things, be served a meal in a place like this. They have a lot of fun.”

The Vikings also provide the teachers with Amazon gift cards so they can purchase items for their classrooms they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

“Isn’t this just fantastic?” one of the student’s caregivers said as she herded her charge across the banquet hall. “We are so grateful to the Vikings for doing this for our children every year. Words can’t express.”

More than 80 of the Vikings of Solvang turned out in their trademark dark-blue blazers to guide the hosts of children, teachers and caregivers into the banquet room, maintaining a smooth flow as bus after bus rolled up outside.

After eating their meals of burgers and fries and singing carols, the students from schools in the Santa Ynez, Lompoc and Santa Maria valleys were guided with equal finesse into their visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus, then out to the parking lot for their return trips even as new groups arrived.

It all seemed to run like clockwork.

“It went very well. It went very smoothly,” agreed Jim Cassidy, chairman of the Christmas party committee. “Every year we’re looking for ways to improve it. The staff here at the Mariott has suggestions how to improve things. They’re part of the team.”

“We had 100 more (children) than last year,” he added. “I’m always amazed there are that many special needs kids in our area.”

Some of the kids arrived in wheelchairs, and some of those chairs were purchased by the Vikings when the parents couldn’t afford them, Saferite noted.

“We’ve probably purchased 30 to 40 wheelchairs at $3,000 each,” he said. “We’ve purchased some for adults, too, and they cost even more.”

But that’s what the Vikings of Solvang do. The philanthropic organization isn’t confined to people of Danish heritage. Its members are of all ethnic backgrounds, religions, ages and professions who have one goal in mind: to give back to the community.

Since being formed in 1974, the Vikings have raised and distributed almost $3 million dollars, said Joel Baker, who’s in charge of the Vikings endowment fund, which was established to ensure the charitable group’s efforts will continue.

Baker said the endowment fund is now about $1.8 million, and each year 5 percent of that is spent on special needs children in the community, including to fund the Christmas party.

“This is a great example of the spirit of the Santa Ynez Valley, taking care of its own,” he said.

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News Editor

Mike Hodgson is news editor at the Santa Ynez Valley News, where he writes about local government, special events and the people who live in the Valley. He has been a photographer, writer, news editor and managing editor at weekly newspapers since 1972

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