More than 100 people got an early visit from Santa on Wednesday thanks to Mental Health America Aiken County and its partner agencies.
The yearly tradition, which has gone on now for nearly 26 years, provides mentally disabled adults in the community with a special Christmas event to remember.
“For the majority of people in this room, this is their only Christmas party,” said Liz Neal, board chair of Mental Health America Aiken County. “For the board and the volunteers, it brings us great joy to do this. It makes you realize how lucky you are.”
The guests were served Christmas dinner by Aiken High School culinary arts students, board members and volunteers, and the jolly old elf himself made a surprise visit to deliver each guest a bag full of Christmas presents.
The presents were made possible by donations from the community.
Two weeks ago, the organization was short on the funding it needed to give each guest a bag of presents. Then, Neal wrote a letter to the editor, which was published in the Aiken Standard, requesting assistance. Citizens answered the call, and the funding came through.
“The Aiken community, as usual, came to rescue,” she said.
This was the first year Orrin Hicks attended.
“I wanted to experience a large festivity. The holidays haven't been much since my mother passed away. I wanted to see others happy because it's contagious,” he said.
Calvin Shealy proudly showed off the PlayStation 2 game he received in his bag.
His mother, Belinda Johnson, said she is grateful for organizations like Mental Health America, Tri-Development Center and Aiken-Barnwell Mental Health, especially around the holidays.
“Every year (Operation Santa) is even better than before. Just to see the excitement on my kids' faces. They can have the things they want that I can't afford,” she said.