Sensitive Santa Makes Christmas Cheer Accessible to All

Sensitive Santa Makes Christmas Cheer Accessible to All

Sensitive Santa has been around for about 15 years. This photo from the first event features Paul Beckman and Patty Wells, former director of Family Relations, as Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

A visit with Santa is intended to be a magical experience. But for children with special needs, it takes some extra thought and planning to make it happen. Family Relations at Cincinnati Children’s was one of the first to recognize this 15 years ago when they introduced the Sensitive Santa program. It was an instant hit, drawing kids and families from all around the Tri-State area, many of whom come back year after year as part of their holiday tradition.

“Family Relations approached me to be Sensitive Santa because of my experience in the Intensive Care Units,” said Paul Beckman, staff chaplain II, Pastoral Care. “It was kind of a win-win because they knew I had played the role of Santa in the ICUs for about 5 years and that I was comfortable being with children and adolescents with different levels of cognitive functioning, particularly in delicate situations.”

The Sensitive Santa event takes place annually for four hours on a Saturday in December inside the Sabin Auditorium. In the early days, according to Beckman, it was just him and Mrs. Claus greeting the families, while a movie played on the big screen. Family Relations staff served punch and cookies.

Over the years, the festivities grew to include crafts, Buddy the Elf and his cohorts, Frosty the Snowman, some of Santa’s reindeer, and the Santa Band—a group of four musicians who instigate lots of dancing and merry-making.

The children who come to see Sensitive Santa have chronic and complex conditions. Some are nonverbal, others can’t see or hear. Some have neurological disorders. But all of them are excited to be part of the fun, even if it takes them a little time to warm up to the situation.

“There was one young lady who came to see us for the first time several years ago,” said Beckman. “She may have been scared or overstimulated by the lights and the music. She only made it about 2 feet inside the door of the auditorium, and she sat down on the floor. Over the course of the afternoon, she would get up and move about 3 feet forward, then sit back down for about 20 minutes. It took her 2 hours to get close enough where she could sit at my feet and finally climb onto my lap. Now when she comes, she runs right to Santa. Her parents are just thrilled and say this is the biggest event of the year for her.”

Santa’s elves help by gathering information from each child about their family, their interests and what they want for Christmas. Then they stand in line on the child’s behalf and come get them when it’s their turn. Santa and Mrs. Claus give each child lots of personal attention and pose for photos. At the end of the visit, Santa gives them a stuffed toy.

“What I find most beautiful about the experience is the generosity of the children,” said Beckman. “Many of them will say their Christmas wish is for all the children to be well or that the children will all get a present. They will ask for gifts for their parents or their siblings before they ask for anything for themselves. One child requested a Cadillac for his mom. I said, ‘What color?’ and Mom said, ‘Pink.’ We had a good laugh about that.”

The kids Santa sees range in age from infants to 23 years old. Most of them believe in Santa. Siblings are welcome too, along with other family members, who enjoy getting in on the fun.

With the COVID pandemic, this year’s Sensitive Santa event has been cancelled. Instead, Family Relations will be sending out a gift packet to each family with a photo of Santa, Mrs. Claus and their helpers and a note explaining that even though the event can’t happen this year, Santa will still be thinking of them.

For Beckman, being Sensitive Santa has become a ministry, and it has taught him that everybody needs to proceed in their own time at their own pace. “These children, many of whom are afraid of Santa, are given the opportunity, the environment and the nurturing to achieve a goal, without being forced. Everybody needs affirmation along the way, whatever journey we’re on.”

He also believes that people are happiest when they’re in service to others. “I think that’s why so many people choose a medical vocation, because they truly connect with that mission of helping others heal. When you’re in that very deep and cherished place of serving others, it’s an experience money just can’t buy.”

The Santa Band keeps things lively for the kids and their families during their visit.

Ellie Hatcher (right) and her sister, Liz, look forward to visiting with Santa every year.

(L-r) Yasmeen, Leena and Soraya Faruqui pose for a picture with Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

What Families Say About Sensitive Santa

Tammy Hatcher and her husband, Chris, have been bringing their daughters, Ellie, 16, and Liz, 12, to see Sensitive Santa for about 7 or 8 years. Previous attempts to visit Santa at the mall proved to be overwhelming for Ellie, who was diagnosed early on with global development delays and has a seizure disorder.

“We received a flyer in the mail about it and decided to try it out,” said Hatcher. “We all fell in love with it. Santa and Mrs. Claus are so accommodating, and they make it personal, calling the kids by name and commenting on how much they’ve grown since last year. It’s never a rushed experience.”

For Ellie, who is followed as a patient in numerous clinics here, the Sensitive Santa event is a way to have a fun experience at the hospital and to achieve some distance from its scarier aspects.

She especially loves dancing with the Santa Band.

“We make a day of it,” said Hatcher. “We visit with Santa, then go see the trees in the concourse and stop in the Gift Shop where the girls each get to pick out something for themselves. Then we go back to the auditorium and dance a little more. Usually, we go out for dinner afterward. The kids look forward to it every year.”

The cancellation of Sensitive Santa due to COVID is a disappointment to them, even though it’s understandable.

“We’ll make a day of it when we get the package from Sensitive Santa,” said Hatcher. “We’ll bake cookies and drive around to look at lights and watch a Christmas movie afterward. It won’t be quite the same, but we’ll figure out how to make it special.”

Jayde Price is a bundle of energy, her mother, Adrienne, says. So they usually arrive to the Sensitive Santa festivities after the first hour, which is intentionally more subdued to accommodate kids who are sensory averse.

Jayde, age 23, has Partial Trisomy 32+ and is hearing-impaired, which makes visits with Santa in a traditional setting more of a challenge.

“We got a flyer about Sensitive Santa when Jayde was in middle school,” said Price. “We tried it, and we’ve been going back ever since.”

Jayde loves Christmas—so much that on her 18th birthday, her family celebrated with a Christmas in July party that included the Santa Band from the Sensitive Santa event.

“What I love about Sensitive Santa is that Jayde can go and be who she is,” said Price. “Everyone is so accepting. I remember when one of the musicians in the band had a bass fiddle, and Jayde, being hearing-impaired, was able to pick up the low notes. She was mesmerized and just stood there watching and listening. The musician invited her to put her hand on the bass so she could feel the vibrations, and she was giddy. Everyone goes out of their way to be inclusive. It’s one of the best environments she gets to be in all year.”

Jayde also enjoys seeing the other kids who come to the event. She knows a lot of them because they’ve been coming for as long as she has. Price helps do her hair and pick out an outfit so she’ll look her best when she has her photo taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

“I feel so blessed to participate in this program,” said Price. “I appreciate that it’s grown over the years. The staff are absolutely wonderful, especially Santa. I know that Jayde will eventually get too old to come to this event, but I’m cherishing her experiencing the joy for as long as we can.”

Tasha Firoza Faruqui has been bringing her three daughters—Soraya, 8; Yasmeen, 11; and Leena, 5—to visit Sensitive Santa for four years now. Soraya, who used to be seen at the Perlman Center, has complex medical needs, including sensory issues. “We don’t go to the mall or to the grocery store, so we had never attempted to visit Santa before,” said Faruqui. “We weren’t sure what to expect with Sensitive Santa.”

They were more than pleasantly surprised. Upon arrival in the auditorium, the family was greeted by a friendly elf who took their name and some information, then waited in line for them to see Santa. Meanwhile, they could go to a table and do crafts or just walk around.

“The volunteers are very engaged,” said Faruqui. “They don’t just wave and say ‘hi.’ They sit down at the table and color with you. Each child gets so much personal attention. It’s fantastic!”

Faruqui loves that the atmosphere is so laid back and that there is consistency in the program and the characters from year to year. “Buddy the Elf always remembers Soraya, and she loves that. There’s no fear, no anxiety. The kids are allowed to explore and touch things, and the staff is very patient with questions.”

Sensitive Santa also reaffirms the siblings of the children with special needs, as he recognizes them for helping their brother or sister and their parents. “My oldest child feels very isolated at times,” said Faruqui, “but when she comes to see Sensitive Santa, she also gets to meet the siblings of the other children with special needs, and she realizes she’s not alone.”

For the family, Sensitive Santa is a space to experience joy without judgment. “It feels good to be in an environment where you don’t have to apologize for your child’s behavior,” said Faruqui. “As the parent of a child with disabilities, you mourn the typical things other families get to do. For this one time each year, we get to just relax and appreciate the kids having fun, and that joy will last the whole year.”

“It feels good to be in an environment where you don’t have to apologize for your child’s behavior."

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