By Morgan Bryce
Staff Reporter

Santa Claus and his elves took a break from their hectic schedule at the North Pole to make an appearance at the 20th annual Christmas party for people with special needs last Friday, held at the National Guard Armory in Opelika.
The event, which draws nearly 350 people each year from Lee, Russell and Chamber counties, began as an outreach project by Harold Watts and retirees of the Uniroyal/Goodrich tire plant in 1997. After the plant shut down in 2009, former University of Alabama quarterback and Dothan-based lawyer Steadman Shealy stepped in and took over as the event’s sponsor.
Shealy said he most enjoys seeing the excited and happy faces of the participants at the party, and how the community rallies together to make the annual event special.
“This Christmas party is about the children … seeing the smiles on their face and knowing they’re being loved and cared about … the community comes together and everybody pitches in to just love these men and women and young boys and young girls … it’s an awesome event,” Shealy said.
This year’s party featured appearances from Auburn University mascot Aubie the Tiger, cheerleaders from both Beauregard and Smiths Station High Schools, as well as music and other activities.
Party organizer and volunteer Paschal Prickett said the event would not be possible without help from volunteers, the city and local members of the National Guard.
“Without the mayor, without the National Guard, we could not do this. Without support from General Perry Smith, we couldn’t afford to rent this building for the event,” Prickett said. “I think the people that are supporters to us look at it the same way we do. They’re giving back to the community, and not expecting anything from them, except big smiles and a lot of fun.”