The sixth annual event was the brainchild of chiropractor Lou Hilliard. The event started for children around his Mableton practice, but it has grown to serve the entire county. This was the first time it was held at the larger venue, having served only 350 kids last year.
Hilliard said he grew up poor in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and he was illiterate until age 26. He wanted to give children a better Christmas than he had.
“It’s about living the lasting purpose,” Hilliard said. “It’s about giving, loving and serving without expectation. I try to live as a leader in the community, and the most important part of being a leader is being a servant.”
While the event was aimed at underprivileged children, Hilliard said he wasn’t going to turn anyone away. Even though it had advance registration on its website, children were welcome to show up on Sunday.
Hilliard said a Christmas celebration he remembers from his childhood in Niagara Falls gave him the idea for Santa Claus helicoptering in. Because of a donation from the Sullivan Group, he was able to make it happen in Cobb.
“This is not a Lou Hilliard event,” he said. “It has been put on by various business groups and business owners. I’ve got people coming from all across the county donating to this. The Christmas spirit has taken over the entire community.”
Organizers were expecting fewer than 1,000 children, but bought 2,000 toys just in case more arrived. Some of the toys were purchased from dollar stores, while Six Flags donated others. Shortly after Santa arrived, Maryclaire Andres, owner of event sponsor Promo-Photo, said she wasn’t sure they would have enough toys.
“If not, we’ll go out and buy more,” she said.
After Santa greeted kids along a barricade, parents and children squeezed into Exhibit Hall A in order to get a good spot in line to get a present and a free photo with Santa. Before long, the line stretched all the way though the building and continued for several hundred feet outside.
“I was expecting around 1,000 kids, we got between 1,500 and 2,000,” Hilliard said. “I think I’ve exceeded my goal. I’m getting ready to make Christmas memories for some of these kids for the rest of their lives.”
Kelly Johnson of Marietta said children Corey, 8; Mariah, 9; and Jessica, 7; appreciated the event.
“It’s wonderful,” Johnson said. “The kids were excited about it. They’ve been looking forward to it all week. And every little bit helps as far as gifts.”
Meeting Santa was the favorite part of the event for Amanda Mantilla and her girls, 7-year-old Hayleigh, 4-year-old Audrina and 5-month-old Khloey.
“It was fun,” Mantilla said. “It was nice that the community does this.”
Along with gifts and photos, kids got cookies, while vendors sold arts and crafts. It was staffed by volunteers from the Cobb Republican Party and other organizations.
Adriane Larson of Adriane’s Delectables in Acworth baked 500 cookies for the Santa’s Coming to Cobb.
“The baking’s not bad,” Larson said. “It’s the mixing. I do everything by hand.”
Outside, there was an inflatable slide and a train driving children around the fairgrounds. But Hilliard and Andres want to see the event grow even bigger next year.