The kids took home presents, ate a spaghetti meal and had a chance to shop for mom and dad.
But the highlight of Christmas at the North Pole, an annual event at Tacoma Christian Center, was a unanimous choice for the three Gonzalez children.
"I liked taking a picture with Santa Claus," said Andrew, 8.
"Yeah, I liked taking a picture with Santa Claus too," said Israel, 6.
And even though 5-year-old Vanessa remained quiet and clung to her mother’s leg, she eventually agreed that she also enjoyed getting a snapshot with St. Nick.
"They had an absolutely great time," said 26-year-old Julia Gonzalez of Tacoma, the kids’ mother. "This was such a nice thing the church put on."
The Gonzalezes were among more than 2,000 people who participated in the event Saturday, a joint project of Tacoma Christian Center and World Vision. The activities included songs, games, videos, a meal, a gift for the kids (already wrapped), a spot for kids to get their picture on Santa’s lap, racks of donated clothes and a room where the kids could pick up gifts for their mother and father.
More than 100 volunteers helped route the kids through the various rooms of the large church on Tacoma’s East Side. It took about three weeks to set up the celebration, the church’s pastor, Terry Harris, said.
It’s the fourth year Tacoma Christian Center has hosted the event; the number of attendees has more than tripled since then. World Vision donated 11 pallets of giveaways this year.
"We believe in helping people," Harris said. "We want to help folks who are poor and low-income. That’s what Christmas is about."
Jessica Fuller of Tacoma agrees. A tractor-trailer rear-ended the car in which her husband was riding last month, so she said this holiday season has been tough on her family. But she and her four children – 11-year old Ian, 6-year-old Marcella, 5-year-old Christy and 3-year-old Michael – were all smiles as they carried gifts wrapped in bright paper.
"We come every year," she said, "but the past month or so has been kinda tough, so this is extra special."
Across the gym, Becky Milleson rested on the bleachers while her two children, 2-year-old Deanna and 1-year-old Jacob, lined up to get a picture with one of three Santas smiling for the camera.
She sat next to a pile of presents and gift bags, the latter something the children could select and give to their parents. Milleson, a 35-year-old Tacoma resident, swore she wasn’t tempted to sneak a peek while her kids weren’t paying attention.
"It’s a surprise for the parents," she said, "just like presents for the kids for Christmas."
And as he walked with his wife and three children to their car, Larry Norfleet of Lakewood seemed moved by the displays of generosity.
"Some churches kind of skimp on these kinds of things, but this church really went out here," he said. "It was a real blessing for us to be here."
Photo by Lui Kit Wong, The News Tribune