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