“Caring Santa” Brings Joy To Children With Special Needs

Photo by Mike Arney on Unsplash

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As Windy waited with her daughter for their visit with Santa, she told staff working at the event that her daughter Amber has cerebral palsy and severe anxiety disorder. She was worried about how it might go. "Amber has a very hard time in new situations and environments, and the anticipation of moments like these can trigger a great deal of anxiety," Windy said.

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Windy and her daughter were the last of 30 families to visit with Santa before the shopping center opened to the public.  When they approached the photo set, Santa began waving to Amber, remembering her from past years. Then, Windy's concern became a reality – Santa's greeting triggered a meltdown that seemed as if the magical moment wasn't going to happen.

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"After several minutes of watching Santa try several different things to soothe Amber, I honestly didn't think we were going to be successful at capturing her visit. But once he began rocking her back and forth and singing to her, Amber suddenly became quiet, looked into his eyes and began connecting with him," said Julia Ballantyne, the marketing director for Gatepath – the Bay Area based nonprofit that helped establish the Caring Santa program in partnership with Simon Malls and The Noerr Programs in 2011. "It was truly an unforgettable moment that brought tears to my eyes."

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"Santa was incredibly patient, and caring with Amber. He didn't give up," Windy said, filled with emotion.

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Until now, families of children with special needs and their siblings could not participate in the time-honored tradition of taking a photo with Santa. "Children with special needs often have great difficulties when in stimulating environments, so families will generally try to avoid situations with large crowds, bright lights and loud noises," said Ballantyne.

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Each mall makes minor modifications to create an environment set up to support the sensory, physical and development needs of the children, said Julie Kelly, director of marketing for the Stanford Shopping Center. "Our online reservation system is used to schedule time with Santa, so there are no long lines or extended waiting times.  One of the most cherished aspects of this event for families is that they can really take their time with Santa," Kelly said.

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"We receive hundreds of heartwarming photos and thank you notes from families each year, telling us how much they appreciate the fact that this event allows their child to enjoy a magical time with Santa, in a more relaxed environment," said Ruth Rosenquist of The Noerr Programs. "It also presents an opportunity for siblings to experience the joy and tradition of the holidays."

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Since its inaugural event in 2011 with seven participating malls, the Caring Santa program continues to grow and is now providing photo experiences to more than 4,000 children in 127 malls across the US.  In 2014, Autism Speaks joined the partnership to help get the word out to families.  The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism and the Special Olympics are among several organizations in the special needs community who also help promote Caring Santa.

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"We are very proud to see how this event has grown and how much happiness it brings to so many families," said Ballantyne.

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