By Alex Bridges
At the age of 39, Joe Henry still believes in Santa Claus.
Santa helped Henry and almost 200 other special-needs children and adults from Shenandoah County receive a Christmas wish this week.
An annual private Christmas Party held at the Toms Brook Volunteer Fire Department hall drew 192 special-needs youth and adult children from across the county. Strasburg couple Linda and Wilbur Thompson help put on the event with their son Steven and people from around the county.
"It's just fun," Thompson said. "I get so blessed."
"They're so happy and they're just so thankful for everything," Thompson added.
Joe Henry's father, Ernest Henry, also pitches in to help at the party, picking up the pizzas, but gives the credit to the Thompsons.
"That's the most awesome thing that they do, that I think that anybody could ever do, and not enough people know about it," Ernest Henry said. "I don't know how they do it."
The Henrys took their son to the first party and they return each year. Henry said he often becomes emotional at the party when he hears the children tell Santa their Christmas wishes and then sees organizers help fulfill those requests.
"These kids need and they believe and it gets to me," Henry said.
Gifts remain anonymous but Henry said he'd like to personally thank whoever provides the items for the children.
Henry's son, a longtime fan of the Washington Redskins, usually receives team-related gifts.
The Thompsons invite children of all ages to the party. Attendance rose from 176 at last year's party. The number of children has more than doubled from the 83 who attended the inaugural event 20 years ago. Many children return each year, long into adulthood.
"They have always been kind," Thompson said of the fire department.
Partygoers make Christmas decorations such as trees, snowflakes and door-knockers with craft supplies. They also decorated large sugar cookies Thompson's friend in Strasburg bakes for the party.
The children also receive a gift from Santa Claus, played by a former co-worker of Thompson's, and have their picture taken with him. Children receive only new gifts, mostly toys and often what they ask for from Santa, Thompson said.
Thompson recalled developing the idea for the party more than 20 years ago. Thompson said she had read an article in the Daily about parents of children with special needs who sought to create a support group. Thompson realized the parents at the meeting had children with special needs while she did not. She at first felt out of place, but introduced herself and the group welcomed her, Thompson recalled.
Then Thompson made an offer.
"I said 'I'll give you all and your families a party,' and they said 'you would do that?' and I said 'absolutely,'" Thompson recalled. "I said 'how hard can that be?"
Thompson soon discovered how much the undertaking would involve. She found a place for the party courtesy of the Toms Brook Fire Department. Shenandoah County Public Schools sent party invitations to students with special needs enrolled in the system, Thompson recalled. She also reached out to parents with special-needs children who did not attend schools in the county.
Thompson used various means to raised money to buy presents for the children. Her husband agreed they could dip into their savings to make sure they had enough presents for the children.
The inaugural event drew slightly more than 80 children.
"It's not a Linda thing and it's not just a community thing 'cause I invite every child that's in Shenandoah County, from New Market to Strasburg," Thompson said.
Fundraising efforts for her annual party grew in importance after Thompson was laid off her job of more than 30 years at R.R. Donnelly. Thompson and her husband also agreed to cut back on buying Christmas presents for each other in order to save money for the holiday party.
But former co-workers, friends and area organizations continue to support her efforts. Churches also try to help when they can, Thompson said.
Thompson, 63, plans to keep the party going as long as she can.
"It just makes you know that people in our county are very giving and loving, even if the times are, like me, I lost my job after 35 years, but that didn't stop my co-workers that I worked with for all those years," Thompson said. "They called me up and said tell us what you need and that meant a lot to me.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org