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Santa greets 4,000 children with special needs at Operation Santa Claus event

A hangar at Delta's terminal transformed into the "North Pole" so children with special needs could have their dream of meeting Santa come true.
/ Source: TODAY

Christmas came about three weeks early at John F. Kennedy Airport for thousands of kids.

A hangar at Delta's terminal transformed into the "North Pole" on Dec. 7 for the annual Operation Santa Claus event, which allowed children with special needs to experience the magic of Christmas — and spend time with St. Nick himself.

Three hundred school buses pulled into the airport for the event, which is put on by Community Mayors, a nonprofit organization that works to create opportunities for mentally and physically challenged children.

What started 65 years ago as a parade featuring Santa Claus for 30 kids has grown into a major event for 4,000 students from 57 different schools throughout New York.

RELATED: Boy with autism is forever connected to Santa, who told him it's OK to be himself

The day kicked off with games and snacks, as the kids anxiously awaited Santa's arrival.

Operation Santa Claus at JFK Airport
The "North Pole" came to JFK Airport for a heartwarming event.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

"Some of these kids can hardly even smile, but to see their eyes all lit up like a Christmas tree, it just gives you goose bumps," Shelley Della Rocca, chief community mayor of the organization, told TODAY.

Just by looking at the children's faces and hearing the place erupt with excitement, you knew Santa was about to make his grand entrance on an airplane, bearing presents for all.

Operation Santa Claus
The kids were excited to see Santa.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

"Weeks before we came here, my students kept asking, 'When are we going to see Santa?'" Melissa Benzel, a teacher at P255Q in Queens, told TODAY. "When they saw Santa come in, they started asking, 'Santa comes in on airplanes? Is that how he gives out presents?'"

Santa greeting children with special needs at annual Operation Santa Claus event.
Ho, ho, ho! Santa greets the children from above.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

Most of these kids spend all year looking forward to this event, not just because they get a day off from school, but because they get to see their dream of meeting Santa come to life.

Operation Santa Claus
A few of the kids who attended Operation Santa Claus.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

"A lot of kids in wheelchairs are confined and can't go to their malls, so we try to bring them a little joy," Buddy Ducalo, Community Mayors volunteer, told TODAY.

After Santa got off the plane, he hopped on a train with Mrs. Claus and some jolly elves and rode it around to greet a hangar filled with ecstatic children and their teachers.

Santa at Operation Santa Claus
Santa rode on a train as he spread cheer.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

"I just like seeing them happy," Ms. Benzel said. "Every day in the classroom is a routine, so anytime we get to do something exciting, especially kids with autism that don't necessarily get to experience all types of things, it's so fun for them."

operation santa
Melissa Benzel with her students.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

"Santa is happy to see us, happy to be here and to just talk to the kids," Latrell Ligon, fifth-grader at PS116 in Manhattan, told TODAY. "I like to shake his hand."

Community Mayors has inspired organizations in states all over the country to follow suit and host their own Operation Santa Claus celebrations.

RELATED: Mall Santa goes extra mile for boy with autism: 'They just bonded and played'

"It's a day when all people come together to bring cheer, joy and happiness," Della Rocca said. "For a few hours, they transport to somewhere else. It's the magic of Christmas."

Santa smiles with Shelley Della Rocca
Santa with Shelley Della Rocca.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

Before the event wrapped up, Santa made sure he gave the kids a chance to get up and dance with him. As soon as "Jingle Bells" came on, everyone knew what to do.

No child left without a bag full of presents and a huge grin on his or her face.

Kids leaving Operation Santa Claus
The kids were all smiles as they left the event.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

"You don't find the meaning of Christmas under the tree, you find the real meaning of Christmas in your heart," Santa, who also rides in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, told TODAY.

This story is part of NBCU's Share Kindness. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. #ShareKindness