A very special visit from Santa in Struthers Tuesday

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The Struthers Rotary’s annual Christmas party has become the stuff of legend to students in Bob Fick’s classroom at Campbell Elementary School.

“It’s a mainstay,” said Fick, shouting over the sounds of popping balloon animals and the chatter of almost 150 children who’d gathered in the basement of Struthers Parkside Church on Tuesday for the event. “The older kids tell the younger ones. They really look forward to it.”

Shortly before noon, special-needs children and their chaperones from across Mahoning County — from Austintown, Campbell, Canfield, Lowellville, Struthers and Youngstown — began arriving at the church for an afternoon filled with food and entertainment, gifts and a visit from Santa Claus.

This year was Fick’s 15th year attending, but the 41st for the Christmas party.

Fick noted that he brought with him 13 students, ranging from kindergartners to fifth-graders, and that he was particularly impressed with the handful of Aut Mori Grotto clowns who circulated the large room, weaving

in and out of the rows of tables to inflate an assortment of balloon-animals for the children.

Popular balloon creations are reindeer, swords, dogs and flowers, said J.J. LoSasso of Boardman, an Aut Mori Grotto clown of 43 years.

“I’m here for the children,” LoSasso said. “I think I’m more excited than they are.”

Though they were waiting in line to see Santa Claus, a few sixth-graders from Lowellville still were enamored of the clowns. Gianna Williams and Juliana Mejia, for example, liked their balloons that had been twisted into a flower and a butterfly, respectively.

Their teacher, Barbara Jamis, said she’s been bringing students to the Christmas party for at least the past decade, and that they show their appreciation by giving out handmade thank-you cards to those who worked to put on the event.

The Struthers Rotary hosts the party, with the help of Interact Club members from Struthers High School, while the Struthers Parkside Church Women’s Association prepares and serves the food: pasta and meatballs, potato chips and ice cream.

It’s a substantial fundraiser for the Women’s Association, said Mary Jonda, who heads the organization. The Struthers Rotary pays for the club’s services, and that money is then used by the club to help women in need.

Linda Krestel, a member of the Struthers Rotary, primarily organized the party this year. This effort involved working closely with the Mahoning County Educational Service Center to invite children, mostly those of elementary-school age.

Alan Gonci and Tony Cheff, both transition/work-study coordinators with the MCESC, said the MCESC has long been a part of the Struthers Rotary’s Christmas party, in part because staff there eventually will work with those special-needs students once they reach high school.

The party allows students to better know MCESC staff, and for staff to better know students and also is a great way to give back to the community.

“It’s just a fun day for the kids,” Krestel said. “They really appreciate getting together and celebrating Christmas.”

Getting enjoyment out of helping others — and especially seeing the smiles on children’s faces as they sit on Santa Claus’ lap, or receive a bag filled with gifts — is the whole point, said Tom Baringer, a former president of the Struthers Rotary.

“The kids are all happy,” he said. “That’s what Rotary’s all about.”

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