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The Santa Maria Elks filled their banquet hall for a special celebration Wednesday night.

It was a joyous occasion, but at times there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as the Elks brought together the children who make up the 2018 Golden Circle of Champions.

This is the third year of the Champions program in which the Elks select 25 local children who are battling cancer for special recognition.

The children attend a dinner at the rodeo, meet many of the cowboys and cowgirls who perform at the Elks Rodeo and then get to watch the rodeo from a special VIP box.

Throughout the rodeo, the Elks stage several fundraisers. Chief among them, they Pass the Boot through the crowd where people can donate money. They also hold a Monte Carlo night at the rodeo to raise even more funds.

Wednesday night was the culmination of this year’s Champions campaign with a special dessert bar for the children and their families and the chance for Elks Rec to send the families home with a little something extra.

The Elks raised $25,000 through this year's campaign, and on Wednesday night, gave each of the 25 children and their families $1,000 – money that can be used for anything to help get through their difficult times.

“We started the Golden Circle of Champions program three years ago to benefit kids with life-threatening cancer,” said Elks Recreation Committee President Peter Sterling. “We’ve now been able to help 75 kids and their families. This is what our rodeo is all about, to be able to give back to the community by raising funds for families with kids battling cancer.”

“Many of these families are struggling like you never know. These kids go through so much,” said Elks Rec Treasurer Scott Parsons. “It’s the little things that count and this is something we can do to help the kids in our community. We’re so happy to be able to do this.”

The children range in ages from three months old up to 16.

They’re battling several different kinds of cancer including Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), Lymphoma, Nuroblastoma and brain tumors.

Summer Kelly, 5, was one of the Champions on hand for the dessert party.

“I had two treats. I just had a pumpkin roll and now I’m having a cookie. This is my favorite place to get treats,” said Kelly. “At the rodeo I got to go on the stage and I was really shy. They gave me a crown (tiara) that I put on top of my cowboy hat. It was really shiny but it was so big.”

“I really like the magician they had at the rodeo dinner,” said 16-year-old Amanda Snowbarger, one of the success stories. “I’m going to San Diego after this for college preview days.”

Not all of the 25 Champions were able to attend Wednesday night’s party. Eight of them had to miss the celebration because they’re still fighting their cancer.

“Carys (Tomilloso) couldn’t be here because she’s still at Stanford,” said her mother Jennifer Tomilloso. “I am happy to say she is now cancer free but she is still having some complications. We’re planning to bring her home in two weeks, hopefully in time for Thanksgiving.”

All of the 2018 Champions were invited back for the 2019 Santa Maria Elks Rodeo.

And the 2019 Golden Circle of Champions got a head start on fundraising when Elks Parking Committee Chairman Jerry Gunn took the stage.

“All of our committee and volunteers took up our own collection,” said Gunn. “And we’re excited to be able to donate $1,700 to get next year’s fundraising off to a good start.”

 “Tonight is a very exciting evening for Elks Rodeo,” said Tina Tonascia, the Chief Operating Officer of Elks Rec. And as Tonascia gathered the children, their families, Elks officers and volunteers together for a group photo, Tonascia put a smile on everyone’s face when she said “Everyone say $25,000 because that’s what we gave out tonight.”

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Senior Sports Reporter