Hundreds of children with special needs are still reaping the benefits of last year's Christmas present - the $5 million donated by South China Morning Post readers and corporate sponsors of Operation Santa Claus. The children, some autistic, some with cerebral palsy, Down's Syndrome and learning disabilities, are members of the Growing Together group, beneficiaries of last year's campaign. Growing Together comprises the Matilda Child Development Centre, Watchdog Early Learning and Development Centre, the Springboard Project and the Hong Kong Vocational Centre. Watchdog, which serves more than 100 children with intellectual, behavioural and physical disabilities each year, suffered financial difficulties in 1999 with a deficit of more than $1.5 million. 'We got lucky with Operation Santa and were able to avoid a deficit this year and last year and implement two new projects,' said Stella Wong Wai-mui, the centre's programme co-ordinator. The Springboard Project is not subsidised by the Government and relies on fundraising to support its special education and community integration programmes for youngsters. Staff and volunteers at the Hong Kong Vocational Centre are creating a respite home for young adults with disabilities to learn to live independently. Meanwhile, the Matilda centre, which provides integrated education for disabled and able-bodied children, used its funds to launch a communication system for autistic toddlers. This year's beneficiary is the KELY Support Group, which helps young people deal with drug, alcohol and relationship problems.