DECATUR - Vickie Crawley smiled shyly, clutching her new teddy bear.

Reaching to give her a hug, Charlie Cox said, "I've known you forever," and that smile broadened and she leaned forward to kiss his cheek.

"Three kisses," he said, teasing her. "That's too many."

It isn't just Vickie Crawley whom Charlie Cox has known "forever." He has known forever, or at least more than 20 years for some, nearly every one of the more than 70 persons who filled the room for the annual Christmas party at A Step Forward.

However, Cox, who will be 80 in February, didn't come by himself. St. Nicholas, also known as Richard Cramer, was there along with representatives of Moundford Free Methodist Church.

"This is one of the happiest parties around," said Gerry Coates, pastor at Moundford since Nov. 1.

Besides a gift and stocking for every developmentally disabled adult participating in the program, there was entertainment from members of Heart and Sole Caring Clowns. Rosy Posy (Rosemary Richards), Flame (Eleanor Bridgman), Sally the Clown (Brenda Smith), Tramph the Clown (Bob Blair) and Rodeo Willie (Bill Longstreet) entertained with songs and balloon animals that donned the heads of nearly every guest.

Kristi Nottleman, administrator of A Step Forward, said Cox had been coming there since the facility opened.

"Charlie brings about everybody he can," she added.

Cox said it was in the early 1980s that his church asked if he would conduct services at one of the group homes for adults.

"Then I had them coming from different homes. We had church with them every Sunday."

The whole event really rides on Charlie's character in the church and how he cares, Coates said, and that brings the response from members at Moundford. Members helped not only with dozens of cookies but helped with funding as well, he added.

"I've seen a couple of (the guests) helping each other," Cox said as some danced to one of Tramph's songs. "But that's what they teach here.

"I've had them stand up and preach," he added. "I see miracles every time I'm here."

Then he told about the young man whom he'd seen for years at the parties. And while Cox had talked with him many times, the young man never said a word. But then, his voice mirroring his emotion, there was that first time he ever called me Charlie, Cox remembered.

"I would rather do this than about anything," Cox said as this year's party ended.

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