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Christmas came early for hundreds of special needs children Monday when they were treated to a party that included lunch, treats, gifts and a visit by Santa and other holiday characters at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton.

The event was the Vikings of Solvang’s 44th annual Christmas party for more than 800 children from as near as the Santa Ynez Valley and as far as Santa Maria, as well as their teachers, classroom aides and caregivers.

The Marriott’s banquet hall was filled with balloons, holiday decorations and the sound of Christmas carols and live music, creating a festive atmosphere for the children who were greeted by such characters as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Grinch.

The characters wandered through the busloads of arriving students, giving the kids high-fives or bending down to just talk with them.

In addition to lunch prepared by the Marriott, each child received a special gift from the Vikings and a bucket of shortbread cookies.

Kids could also pose for photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

The Vikings made sure Christmas came early for the teachers as well, who received gift cards allowing them to purchase items needed for their classrooms they otherwise couldn’t afford.

More than 80 members of the Vikings of Solvang, wearing their trademark dark-blue blazers, were on hand to guide groups of children, their caregivers and teachers into the banquet room as bus after bus pulled up to the curb outside.

The Vikings invite so many special needs children that the lunch has to be served in two seatings.

After eating burgers and fries and singing carols, students visited with Santa and Mrs. Claus before boarding their buses for the journey back to their schools.

Some of the kids arrived in wheelchairs, and a number of those chairs were purchased by the Vikings when the parents couldn’t afford them at a cost of about $3,000 each.

A Vikings member said the men’s service club has purchased 30 to 40 wheelchairs, including some for adults.

Although the club’s name is the Vikings of Solvang, membership in the philanthropic organization isn’t limited to people of Danish heritage. Its members are of all ethnic backgrounds, religions, ages and professions.

In fact, the primary requirement for joining is having a desire to give back to the community.

Since being formed in 1974, the Vikings of Solvang has raised and distributed approximately $3 million through its endowment fund. Each year, 5 percent of the fund is spent on helping special needs children.

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This report was compiled by Mike Hodgson, news editor for the Santa Ynez Valley News. He can be reached at mhodgson@leecentralcoastnews.com.

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