Northside Kiwanis, WCI deliver Christmas cheer to thousands in Immokalee

Janet Lee has spent the last six Christmases not with her own family, but with the families of thousands of strangers at Airport Park in Immokalee.

Sunday, she sat in the sun taking photographs of children — some smiling, some crying — as they sat with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Shelley Lawlor, of the United Kingdom, a volunteer for the day, packages rolls for people to take home with them at the Christmas festivities put on by the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club and WCI in Immokalee on Sunday. The event has been going on for more than 20 years and includes volunteers from Southwest Florida.

Photo by Tracy Boulian, Daily News // Buy this photo

Shelley Lawlor, of the United Kingdom, a volunteer for the day, packages rolls for people to take home with them at the Christmas festivities put on by the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club and WCI in Immokalee on Sunday. The event has been going on for more than 20 years and includes volunteers from Southwest Florida.

"This is the best way to spend Christmas for me," the 22-year-old said. "It's my way of giving thanks and appreciating what I have. It's definitely worth the time."

With the sounds of laughter and Feliz Navidad, and the smell of sausage and chicken permeating the air, there was no better place to be than Airport Park on Christmas Day. The park plays host to the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club's "Christmas in Immokalee" each year.

Christmas in Immokalee began in the mid-1980s, when onetime farmworker Mary Evans started serving meals from the side window of her home on East Eustis Avenue. The meals began attracting more than 100 migrant workers each Christmas. Two years later, the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club became involved and the event now attracts about 5,000 people each Christmas.

About three-quarters of farmworkers earn less than $10,000 per year. Organizers expected this year's event to attract more people after the devastation Hurricane Wilma brought to the crops in Immokalee.

"I think we are going to have more people this year. I think some people are worried about what's in store for them," said Ian Rowlands, public relations chairman for the Kiwanis Club.

Members of the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club participate each year as a way to share their good fortune with those who have little. The event allows the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club, in conjunction with WCI Properties Inc., to give a little to those who help put food on the table year-round.

In addition to a meal of marinated pulled chicken and sausage and peppers, those who attended the party got corn, black beans and salad made of cucumbers, green and red peppers and tomatoes. The leftovers were given to the families, who may not have the benefit of a hot meal on Christmas without the program.

There were also presents. Children got toys, while the adults got bandannas, socks and gloves.

Jenita Warren, 7, toted around her new doll after visiting Santa.

Valerio Garcia, of Immokalee, puts his arms around his wife, Flora Perez, while they wait in line for food in Immokalee. About 5,000 people were expected to eat and take part in the Christmas celebration.

Photo by Tracy Boulian, Daily News // Buy this photo

Valerio Garcia, of Immokalee, puts his arms around his wife, Flora Perez, while they wait in line for food in Immokalee. About 5,000 people were expected to eat and take part in the Christmas celebration.

"It's fun, although I really wanted to pick a ball from the boys' side," she said.

Deonne Konopasek, a member of the Northside Naples Kiwanis, said there was no better way to get into the holiday spirit.

"What's a better way to give? This is so cool and the feeling of giving is addictive," she said. "We have so much. For me, it feels better to be generous."

After getting their photo taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus, the children could pick out a toy from one of several tables. Dolls, balls and toy cars were the hot items flying off the tables.

"Santa was not supposed to begin seeing kids until 10 a.m., but we had people lined up at 7 (a.m.)," said Tim Martarano, president of the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club. "It's amazing how this grows every year."

Marie Manius brought her nephew, godbrother and godsister to receive toys.

"I think it really helps the kids out," she said. "Some parents are not fortunate enough to do this for their kids. It's nice."

All of the families also received a blanket. Some even benefited from a diaper giveaway.

Juan Medina, past president of the Immokalee Kiwanis Club, watched as his fellow community members lined up to get blankets.

"They are very popular," he said. "This vegetable season has taken its toll. This line, the people who need help, this tells you the picture in Immokalee."

Medina, who provided musical entertainment for the event, said all of the help the community received from the Northside Naples Kiwanis Club and WCI was a blessing.

"All I can really say is 'thank you' and 'gracias,' " he said.

The event made an impression not only on those who attended, but those who helped.

Santia Saintcyr, 15, came to the park to volunteer as part of the Key Club at Immokalee High School. She said she felt honored to be a part of the events.

"It's amazing, all of these people. The best part is seeing the children with their gifts. They get these huge smiles on their faces," she said. "It's wonderful."

Another popular part of the party was having a Polaroid taken of the families and children. Volunteers stationed themselves throughout the park and drew long lines.

"One year, Kodak donated the instamatic film and the photos were so popular, we made them a part of the budget," Martarano said. "For some of these people, this is the first photograph they have of their children or of themselves."

Dominga Perez, 12, had her photo taken with her sisters.

"It's fun," she said.

Cash Graner, 17, said volunteering for the party was better than any present.

"It's nice because you see you are helping people who need it more than you do," the Golden Gate High School senior said. "It's a beautiful thing."

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