Eight-year-old Mackenzie Orth had hints that something special was happening at her home Wednesday afternoon.

Her parents, Brittany Henderson and Joe Orth, carried her outside and nestled her onto a lawn chair, placing her dog Fluffy into her lap.

Lakeland Police closed off Mississippi Avenue and Charles Street, Officer Colton Thompson began blowing some Florida snow out of a special machine, and then a small parade of well-wishers began arriving, including LPD’s motorcycle and K-9 units, and a large fire truck with a special guest.

Santa himself climbed down out of the red engine carrying gifts for the little girl who loves Christmas. The jolly old elf pulled a snow globe from his sack and handed it to Mackenzie.

Santa gives Mackenzie Orth a snow globe. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

“This is from me to remind you of this day,” said Santa, who also goes by his undercover name Russ Claridy. “Any time you want to remember our meeting, all you have to do is pick this up and shake it.”

And then about 100 merrymakers walked from Florida Southern College to her driveway, with the Lakeland High School Chamber Singers – decked out in their holiday finest – singing Christmas carols.

Word spread Sunday evening that Megan Dice Lewman, owner of The Juice Box, was organizing an event for Mackenzie, who has Stage 4 Rhabdomyosarcoma. It is a rare form of cancer that attacks soft tissue like muscles, tendons and cartilage, and leaves those with it in extreme pain. She was diagnosed in October 2021.

Lewman, who cleared it with Mackenzie’s parents and Tampa General Hospital chaplain H.L. McConnell, asked that people bring all their Christmas cheer.

And then Lakelanders showed up with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts.

LPD spokeswoman Robin Tillett and Lt. Joe Parker put elf hats on and organized a few additional things, including Rico, a “magical” horse with sparkly golden hooves, ridden by Shawn Drentwett.

Mackenzie, dressed all in pink, waved at the police officers and firefighters Mackenzie’s mother said she is in awe of all the people who made this happen for her daughter.

“All of these people want you to know they love you.”

santa to mackenzie

“I appreciate every single person who wants to make my baby smile and happy,” Henderson said. “She loves Christmas, always has, and not even for the presents. She has always loved the lights, crafts decorations, hot coco, all the Christmas cheer and I think this is amazing.”

Before the crowd left, Santa had one last message for Mackenzie.

“All of these people want you to know they love you,” Santa said. Then he turned to the crowd. “You’re on the nice list from here on out!”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your BIG HEARTS and the love you’ve shown to this precious child and her parents! May the Lord bless each one of those who participated in any way! The LCC 1:11 Servant Prayer Team of our church, LowCountry Community Church, in Bluffton, SC, has been praying for Mackenzie since her Great Aunt, Lucy, who attends our church, let us know about the battle this child was fighting! With all the bad stuff we read about in the news, this is so refreshing to read of the care shown to a stranger in their community who is in a battle for her life! Lakeland, you’ve done yourself proud!

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