The Santa Maria Elks put the icing on the cake — and brownies, pies and cookies — Wednesday night when they reunited the Golden Circle of Champions children and families in the lodge’s banquet hall for a special dessert reception.

It was a night of mixed emotions.

There was joy and sadness — joy because the Elks were able to disburse $1,000 checks to 25 local families with children battling pediatric cancer.

But also sadness as the Elks mourned the loss of two of their champions —3-year-old Esneider Vasquez Salvador and 15-year-old Alexys Ruiz, who lost their battles with cancer shortly after the end of the 76th annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo.

“Unfortunately, we lost them right after the rodeo,” said Lisa Brown, mother of Lexi Brown who died from cancer in 2016. “The Golden Circle of Champions is Lexi’s living legacy. I have the privilege of meeting all these families, to really get to know them. The Golden Circle makes us so excited, but the reality of children battling cancer is tough — it really hits home.”

The Elks' goal was to raise $25,000 so they could give $1,000 checks to 25 local families with children fighting cancer, according to Elks Recreation Chief Operating Officer Tina Tonascia.

“The figures are still coming in, but we know we met our goal," she said. "We wanted to get these families some financial help as soon as possible. This is money they can use in any way to meet their needs.”

The Elks raised the money through a series of fundraisers including the annual Cowboy Up Casino, a raffle of 100 bottles of wine and their annual Pass the Golden Boots in the Stands campaign where Elks volunteers pass golden boots through the crowd at each rodeo performance. People are encouraged to help fill the boots with cash — money that helps the Elks to reach their financial goal.

“I think this is a great program that our Elks Recreation Committee has started,” Elks Exalted Ruler Tony Campas said. “These are all great families with kids battling a life-threatening illness. We’re happy to provide all the support we can. I hope we can do even more in the future.”

This is the fourth year that the Elks have held their Golden Circle of Champions, a program that honors the memory of Lexi Brown while helping local families. 

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” said Elks Recreation President Peter Sterling. “Our program began simply here in Santa Maria but has since grown into a national program. Now there are rodeos all across the country, including the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) every December in Las Vegas, that have embraced the Golden Circle of Champions."

The program picked up another boost at the reception when Michael Jordan, general manager of Santa Maria Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, presented Tonascia with a $3,500 check on behalf of the dealership and its owner Scott Simkins.

“This also helps us provide the kids and their families with a magical night at the rodeo,” Tonascia said. “The kids come to our Thursday night performance. They get a banquet dinner cooked up by the Hitching Post, passes to Camp Buckaroo, Resistol Hats, an official Elks Rodeo buckle made by Montana Silversmiths and a backpack filled with great things and, of course, they get to watch the rodeo from VIP box seats. We also invite past Golden Circle families to come out that night, too.

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino praised the Elks' efforts in the community. 

“I came out to meet all these wonderful kids and families," she said. "The Elks are making something good out of a terrible illness and this lets the families know that we care, we all care -- the community cares.”

Lisa Brown hopes that one day, there aren't enough candidates for the Golden Circle of Champions. 

“We’ve had 25 kids out each year since the Golden Circle program began, but there’s still a huge list of kids, too many kids, and families that need our help,” she said. “The statistics say 1 in 5 kids who get cancer won’t survive. I would love to be here for the day when we don’t have enough kids for the Golden Circle. Until that day, we’ll keep doing it.”