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Santa lands near Lodi to visit underprivileged children

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Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2001 10:00 pm

By the time Christmas morning rolls around, Santa will have arrived in Lodi by fire engine, antique car and, of course, by sleigh.

But he came by helicopter Tuesday.

It was a special day for nearly 60 homeless children — ranging in ages from 5 to 10 — who attend the Transitional Learning Center at St. Mary’s Interfaith Dining Hall in Stockton.

Santa Claus waves from a helicopter
Santa Claus waves from a helicopter to a crowd waiting for him to touch down at a residence on East Handel Road east of Lodi on Tuesday. (Jerry R. Tyson/News-Sentinel)

Just before noon, and a week before Christmas, the group looked to the sky, shielded their eyes and squinted to make out a jolly man dressed in a red suit waving from a helicopter.

After circling above Tommie and Keith Harvey’s home, which is located east of Lodi on East Handel Road, the four-seat helicopter, flown by Greg Hartman of Lodi, descended from its 1,000-foot elevation and landed squarely on the couple’s front lawn.

Each year, the Harveys use the helicopter to land Santa for grandchildren, extended family and friends.

This year, though, their daughter, Missy Harvey Gotelli, who usually organizes the event, decided to extend the excitement to a group of underprivileged children.

The tradition of using a helicopter for Santa’s arrival started about five years ago, Gotelli said.

“We were having a Christmas morning with our family in the living room when we heard the sound of a helicopter. When we went outside, we saw Santa circling around waving at us. It was such a magical thing,” she said.

“But it got so hard to organize. One year, I got to talking to friends and said, ‘Imagine how magical it would be for these children (in Stockton).’ ”

Magical it was.

When the helicopter landed, the children’s attention shifted to the man in the red suit emerging from Tuesday’s form of transportation. Some children began to excitedly jump up and down, while others, apparently nervous, shifted their weight from foot to foot and wrung their hands.

When they were given the go-ahead to run and greet Santa, they dashed to his side. Some hugged the man while others jumped to reach his ear. At least one seemed more interested in the helicopter setting down, though.

They got to get a closer look at its interior, thanks to Hartman, who has been flying for 11 years. Children also received wrapped gifts with each of their names and had their pictures taken with Santa.

“It’s kind of fun to look at Christmas from a child’s eyes,” said Santa, also known as Tom Newton, a Lodi attorney. “These kids deserve a good Santa.”

Newton, who hadn’t worn the suit since his children were little, also played Santa during a recent home holiday tour.

Planners were worried when daylight hit Tuesday revealing a sky full of Valley fog. The helicopters cannot fly in adverse weather.

“I woke up and thought, ‘God, if you’re going to let us do this, the fog will lift,’ ” Gotelli said.

Teachers at the Transitional Learning Center were among those thankful the fog burned off.

“We are so grateful to the Harveys to provide this experience that our children will never forget,” said Sarah Garfield who works at the center, a kindergarten through sixth-grade school that serves homeless children primarily from Stockton and French Camp.

Founded in 1992, the center includes an on-site medical and dental facility. In addition to providing educational guidance, the center also offers showers and clothing.

The agency, which counts the Harvey family among its volunteers, recently lost its federal funding and is looking for donations.

For additional information about the program, call (209) 467-0703. Donations can be sent to St. Mary’s Interfaith Dining Hall, 545 W. Sonora St., Stockton, CA 95203.

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