Shrieks and yelps echoed through the gym at the City Rescue Mission as children stampeded across the wooden floor.
A mob enveloped Santa and Mrs. Claus on Friday afternoon. Children jumped and squeezed in close and yelled with joy. An older boy sneaked a quick tug of Santa's beard.
Parents peeled their children out of the group hug as volunteers tried to corral the kids into a line.
“You cannot trample Santa Claus and Mrs. Santa Claus,” one mother instructed her children.
Zoey Ramos, 5, was the first to sit on Santa's lap.
She grinned as she whispered to him.
“I asked for a house and a house and a car and dolls,” she said afterward, excitedly picking through the toys from her stocking. “Do you want to play with my Play-Doh with me?”
Her mom, Rita Ramos, swayed from side to side as she held her 4-week-old son, Jeremiah, who slept through the clatter. The party was special for Zoey and her older sister, Izabell, Ramos said.
“They love it,” she said. “They're really big into Santa.”
Izabell, 6, pulled out a prize from her stocking: “I got a toothbrush!” Her mom smiled and patted her daughter's shoulder.
The Ramos family has been living at the shelter since August. Rita is participating in Bridge to Life, a program designed to find long-term solutions for homeless residents.
Rita said she's becoming self-sufficient and staying sober because of the program and close-knit community at the shelter. It's an exciting time, she said.
“I'm really looking forward to ... having that sobriety and giving them exactly what they deserve,” she said.
This year is the first that Scott Sanchez is spending with his daughter, Isabella, 3. After a brief stint in prison, he took custody of his daughter. The state Department of Human Services helped connect them to the mission and the Bridge to Life program five months ago.
The single dad said he's trying to make it special even if he doesn't have much money. Sanchez's family and a friend from church are giving him gifts for Isabella this year.
“She gets to celebrate the joy of Christmas and gets the real understanding of joy and fellowship,” Sanchez said. “This is a really special time for me.”
J.D. and Gloria Simpson have been playing the roles of Santa and Mrs. Claus at the shelter since 1984.
They visit schools and other community locations throughout the city, too.
But the shelter stop has a special place in their hearts, Gloria Simpson said.
Most children ask for little, if anything. One girl this year asked Santa to reunite her parents and make them happy.
“These children here seem like they're more loving,” she said.
“They get excited. I think they appreciate seeing Santa.”