SANTA ANA : Children Get an Early Christmas

Santa Claus made an early visit to about 270 children Tuesday night at a Christmas celebration that has become more than a tradition for many of the families in attendance.

Melissa Carew, and her three sons, ages 5 to 12, have been coming to the dinner for seven of the last nine years since the Orange County auxiliary of the Children's Home Society of California started the annual event.

"I'm a single mom, so Christmas is all on my shoulders," Carew said.

The annual Christmas party is held for the youngsters and their families--most headed by single parents--who are recipients of child-care grants from Children's Home Society. The dinner and gifts are a result of fund-raising efforts by the 14 Orange County chapters and corporate underwriters.

The nonprofit organization, which marked its 100th year of service last month, provides a variety of family assistance programs, including partial or full funding for child care to families who are already employed or are getting their education.

Carew, 32, said she "went from having no skills, being unemployed and on welfare" to being able to graduate next year as a registered nurse. Children's Home Society, she said, has been able to help her with the "astronomical cost of child care in the county."

In Orange County alone, the organization currently has 19,000 children on a four-year waiting list for child-care assistance, according to Lisa Velarde, director of child care services for the society.

The children and their parents sat down in the First Congregational Church hall in Santa Ana to a hot dog dinner, served in specially painted boxes with red and green handprints.

The line to Santa Claus never shortened through the evening, as children waited to sit on his lap and share their hopes for Christmas gifts.

After each child was photographed sitting on Santa's lap, the long-anticipated moment of the night came when Santa's helpers handed the children wrapped gifts.

"It's not surprising to see them leave with unopened presents," said organizer Dorothy Fitzgerald, "because they save them for Christmas morning."

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