What started with 25 Latino children 25 years ago has grown to more than 225 Rome residents from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru specifically invited through area schools’ Head Start and other programs targeting those in need.

Saturday’s Fiesta de los Reyes Magos — or Festival of the Three Kings — at the Rome Civic Center was founded and organized by Angel Express Director Janet Baltzer in 1995 as a way to treat families during the traditional Catholic epiphany in early January.

“This year the weather had us all worried that no one would come, but it doesn’t seem to have made a difference,” said Baltzer, who also founded Angel Express 26 years ago to assist other agencies serving the community in a variety of ways. “I’m grateful everybody came together again this year and had a great time. It’s hard to believe we’ve done this for 25 years now.”

Attendees were provided with free gifts, a hot meal of tamales, donated clothing, entertainment provided by dancers from Cedartown’s Ballet Ritmo Latino, a Hula Hoop contest for the children and the thrill of busting up pinatas for the sweet prizes inside.

Baltzer’s husband Sam said preparations for the fiesta begin more than two months ahead and require the careful coordination of a variety of volunteers and sponsors.

“Some things are done a year in advance, like booking the Civic Center,” he said. “But the crush of preparations happen the week before. It took three van loads to bring all the toys and decorations up here. We’re very grateful to Panera Bread, Kroger, Publix and Hispanic food stores for the food donations, too.”

The mounds of clothing on six long tables were donated by only six Rome residents who saw Facebook posts by volunteer Cathy Bruce, Baltzer said.

“The clothing donations just happened this week,” she said. “We’ve just been so incredibly blessed by this amazing, generous community. We couldn’t have done any of this without them all.”

Yojaira Vasquez, 17, said this was the second year her family of seven has attended the fiesta. She said she appreciates that the adults are given gifts, as well as the children.

When her brother Kenny’s name was called during the raffle, she and their father, Guillermo Vasquez, walked alongside the Elm Street Elementary sixth-grader’s motorized chair as he made his way to the table full of unwrapped new toys.

His eyes lit up as he spotted the wide array of colorful balls atop the blue table cloth. He finally chose a black and white soccer ball and gripped it tightly as he made his way back to one of the 22 large round dining tables.

Head Start Family Advocate Stephanie Hamilton said she had sent invitations to seven families in the Head Start program in Floyd County and although only one of those families made it to Saturday’s event, she was very happy to see them.

“Head Start is not just for the kids, but the whole family,” Hamilton said as she passed out information flyers to attendees. “If we can serve our families any way we can, that’s what we try to do.”

Baltzer said she loves to see second generations coming to the event now and those who came when they were small children who are now adults with their own offspring.

“It’s heartwarming to see all these people from year’s past,” she said as she rushed off to help prepare the pinatas for the final surprise.

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