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A timely visit from a Claus with a cause

Sick kids get a special audience with Santa and Mrs. Claus, as the Kiwanis Club and BPB Celotex team up to brighten their holiday.

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Karina Garcia, 1, takes a good look at the jolly old elf (E.J. McCaffery) Thursday as Mrs. Claus (Annie McCaffery) provides a helping hand.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


TAMPA -- The line to Santa and Mrs. Claus contained an unusual number of wheelchairs.

This was the 22nd annual Christmas party for children with chronic illnesses, hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Tampa Bay at the Florida Aquarium on Thursday. Almost 1,000 children from infants to teens attended on Thursday, including blonde 7-year-old twins named Kristen and Krystle Diez.

Their mother, 34-year-old Maria Diez, held their place in the Santa line while the girls ran among the tables on the patio overlooking the big cruise ship. Families who already had been through the line sat at the tables among torn gift wrapping, admiring the gifts each child was given and munching pizza and hot dogs.

The twin girls suffer from speech and language problems, plus hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, said Diez, a single mother of three who is getting by on disability payments for depression.

But looking around at the other children, some coping with failing hearts or diseased lungs, left her feeling grateful for the relative health of her own.

"It makes me realize how much they have, looking at all the disabled kids," she said.

All the families at the party are recipients of Children's Medical Services, a state medical program for low-income families. Without help, medical bills for some of these children could run up to $10,000 a month, said program manager Anthony Fernandez.

Kiwanis members teamed up this year with employees of drywall manufacturer BPB Celotex to buy and wrap 1,000 gifts for the Clauses to give away at the party.

Krystle and Kristen said they would ask Santa for baby dolls.

When Krystle asked her mother what she wanted for Christmas, Diez replied, "I have everything I want."

- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or gibson@sptimes.com.

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