FELLSMERE — Jesse Zermeno isn’t Santa Claus, but for a few hours last Sunday, he was the Jolly Ol’ Elf’s twin in spirit. Zermeno, founder of Operation Hope in Fellsmere, held his annual Christmas Giveaway, handing out toys to needy families to make their children’s Christmas a little bit brighter and more merry.
Families began arriving hours before the giveaway – not only to ensure they received toys, but also to enjoy the live entertainment, the bounce houses, and one last chance to sit on Santa Claus’s lap to make sure he knew exactly what they wanted.
“It’s like a tradition,” Zermeno said of holding the giveaway, admitting that he’s lost track of how many years – 13 or 14 – the organization has held it.
For Cynthia Hudson, without Operation Hope’s Christmas Giveaway, her eight grandchildren would have probably gone without any presents under the tree, she said.
A few days before the event, her car was broken into and her ID and bank card were stolen. That card had the money she was going to spend on presents.
“We wouldn’t have Christmas otherwise,” Hudson said.
Two of her grandchildren played amongst the other children, waiting for the Giveaway. With faces painted, the kids started to dart into the crowd, causing Hudson to call after them.
“I just have to hold onto them,” she said.
The event has grown in popularity among other non-profit, for-profit, and church groups that Zermeno didn’t need to go looking for entertainers, performers and volunteers.
The stage was donated, he said, and 27 dancers from three Mexican states performed in authentic Mexican garb.
“We’re doing very well,” Zermeno said half-way through the afternoon-long event. “I have so much thanks to those who donated. God bless them and thank you for making those kids happy.”
He expected to provide toys for approximately 1,000 children.
The mayor of Palm Bay, William Capote, donated the bounce houses children played in to while away the time. He also donated candy for the kids.
Fellsmere farm SunAg donated fresh fruit for the families to take with them after the giveaway, and PepsiCo donated sodas.
The Grand Harbor community in Vero Beach donated approximately 40 bicycles to be given to the children who attend school at Operation Hope, Zermeno said. And a family in Sebastian made quilts to hand out.
Given the size of the crowd, the Palm Bay Lions Club volunteered to handle the parking, making sure families could easily find a parking spot and not get blocked in.
In the weeks leading up to the Christmas Giveaway, LoPresti Aviation in Sebastian and First Presbyterian Church of Vero Beach served as drop-off sites for the toys.
And while many of the families who attended came to help supplement what would otherwise have been a meager Christmas morning, not so for one family.
Jimmy, who declined to give his last name, brought five children with him – not all his, he said – to enjoy the games, music and treats.
“We got all our shopping done yesterday (Saturday),” he said. “We’re here just for the fun.”
Two of the kids with him, 9-year-old Destiny and 11-year-old Devin, said they were looking forward to seeing Santa Claus and giving him their last-minute wish lists.
While waiting for Santa, though, they planned to get their faces painted and bounce in the bounce house.
“This is a lot of fun!” Destiny said.