Nothing sums up the magic of Christmas quite like a visit with Santa Claus. To finally see that red velvet suit up close and personal and to have a fleeting moment where it seems all dreams are within reach is the kind of moment that makes believers out of even the most skeptical little ones.
However for many children the crowds at a mall or public events make the experience anything but magical. Holiday events are typically decked out in flashing lights, loud, cheery music and bright, bouncy activity. Combined, it’s exactly the kind of sensory overload that many children with special needs cannot handle, and the classic childhood moment of whispering wishes in Santa’s ear just isn’t an option.
In an effort to bring holiday cheer to all children in the community, Mansfield Parks & Recreation added a new feature to their Hometown Holidays celebration this year. Elf Express was an hour of sensory-friendly Santa visits in an accessible location for children with special needs. Held at the Mansfield Activities Center, which has ample handicap parking and automated doors, the event was exactly the opposite of what you expect for the holidays. Families were greeted by minimal decoration, low lighting and no music or activity for a calming, comfortable experience.
“Everyone loves Hometown Holidays because there is just so much going on, so many great things to see and do,” said Special Events Manager Angie Henley. “But we realize that’s not ideal for everyone and wanted to find a way to include all children this year. These kids deserve to have those memories just as much as anyone. It was our job to make that happen.”
For a few dozen Mansfield children, they did just that.
Santa and Mrs. Claus were waiting in a secluded room for families to enter one at a time and enjoy private time with the big man in the red suit. He took special care with each child as an individual, giving space to those with social or spatial anxiety, gently holding a wheelchair-bound child with little muscle control and helping a blind child feel the textures of his suit, his fur and even his beard. Siblings were invited as well, giving parents a rare ‘normal’ family moment.
Space in the program was limited to preregistration to ensure Santa would have enough time to meet with each child and not rush anyone. Those waiting their turn did not stand in long lines but rather had the option of a large quiet room with chairs and place to rest or a gym with soft toys and games. A professional photographer snapped photos for the families, free of charge, to take one less worry off the parents. In all, it was an experience many say they will cherish forever.
“It was so thoughtful of the Mansfield Activities Center to open their doors and create a space for children like my son Lincoln, to come and enjoy Santa and just be kids,” said Mansfield resident Ashley Tooley. “It was a day not about a diagnosis or a list of medications or therapies, just kids who got to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. It truly made an impact on my entire family.”
Registration for the event filled in about 48 hours, something the organizers were thrilled to see. Based on the feedback, both online and from parents attending, they’re planning bigger and better things for next year.
“We had no idea going in to it what sort of reaction this would get,” Henley said. “Now that we’ve seen the response, and more importantly the impact it had on these families, we’re absolutely planning an expanded event for next year so we can include as many children as possible. But honestly, it doesn’t matter how many we reach. If we can bring the spirit of Christmas to just one child who hasn’t felt welcome in Santa’s lap before, that’s more than enough for me.”