This morning, as I gave my heart a hug as he squirmed, a kiss on the top of his delicate forehead, and helped hoist his little 3.5-year old frame up a set of school bus stairs far too large for his little legs to handle, I thought about what I would want to say to the world this morning. This morning when so many, like myself, are placing our children on the bus, watching them take their seats – or in the case of my boy, get strapped into his seat – and standing at the end of our driveways watching that yellow bus fade into the distance, praying to God that our children return to us safely at the end of the day, what words do you need to hear? What words do I need to say?
There is much that could be said about evil, cruelty, political issues, and the victims, but that doesn’t help our hearts as we watch our children drive away or hop out of our back seats at carpool.
What we need is hope. Faith. Something to restore our confidence in humanity. Something to remind us of the good in this world.
As many of you may know, Santa visits have never gone too well in my house. Santa himself is rarely the issue, but the environment around Santa makes or – more commonly – breaks the experience. When this year rolled around and, once again, all of the “Special Needs Santas” didn’t quite fit my boy’s needs, I decided that if no one would create the experience my boy needed to see Santa comfortably, I would do it myself.
At first, my confidence was absolutely shattered. If you didn’t read the following post of mine that was published on the SPD Blogger Network, I suggest you do. It’ll give you the backstory without me rehashing 1000 words worth of it:
The response to that piece was overwhelming. Where I had sent out pleas on my personal Facebook page that had mostly gone unanswered, suddenly everyone was trying to help. I had friends who were actively crowdsourcing for me to find both a Santa and a photographer who would donate their time to some very special children.
I wasn’t sure we were going to do it. In fact, as we approached Thanksgiving and I hadn’t booked either Santa or a photographer, I really thought it wasn’t going to happen.
Until one afternoon. I received a text from another special needs mama friend of mine that she might have a Santa for me. I smiled, but wasn’t too optimistic. It just hadn’t panned out yet – every Santa wanted to either get paid or didn’t have any interest in coming out to our therapy clinic to meet our children at their level – in their environment. Nevertheless, I awaited his phone call.
A couple of days later, it came. Not only did Santa want to do it, but this was just the kind of thing that he and Mrs. Claus live for. They both go to one of our local children’s hospitals on Christmas morning to hand gifts out to the children. They were eager to come help out. They wanted me to tell parents not to force the children to come to them, that they have a few tricks to help children feel comfortable and to just give them time to decide to come to Santa. That Santa would do what each child needed to make the experience a happy one.
I knew I’d found the right guy in a red suit.
Now all I needed was a photographer. I can wield a camera, but not with an skill or artistic vision. I was prepared to take pictures of families – with their cameras – if need be, but my hope was to find someone who might be able to capture what is the beauty of our children just as they are. As it turns out, my stepmom was able to come through on this one. She connected me to a wonderful lady who was more than willing to come take pictures for us and provide families with digital pictures afterwards.
As the morning approached, I was feeling anxious. Did I set this up right? Would everyone get what they wanted out of the experience? The Special Needs Santa had become more than just a project for Jack; it was a way to help a group of children whose own community of advocacy organizations had yet to serve in this way, because most “autism-friendly” Santas still operated under the assumption that our kids will do okay around large groups of people. That’s just not the case. They need familiarity, quiet, and a Santa who doesn’t expect children to be someone their not and rush them through the process.
I got to the clinic and – with the help of Jack’s former OT – we got the place as Christmasy as we could. The photographer arrived and seemed very nice and understanding about what most of our families would want out of the experience. I was feeling a bit more optimistic, until I saw Santa. As he and Mrs. Claus strolled through the clinic door, I was over the moon. Both were clad in velvety red outfits with white fur adornments that looked as authentic as the real thing. Santa himself had a real white beard and long white hair, just like the Santas of our childhood memories. It was as if the good St. Nick had stepped right off of his sleigh and into the front door of Jack’s therapy clinic.
Santa smiled and gave me a hug. My fears and anxieties instantly melted away. I was ready.
Jack was the first – the guinea pig, if you will – of the group. Now, this year Jack still doesn’t get Santa, but we worked with him on labeling Santa so he can identify a picture of Santa if he sees it. He doesn’t know that Santa brings presents on Christmas Eve or any of that. Jack’s also never been able to answer a “What do you want for Christmas/your birthday?” type question, so we worked with him on making that a prompt with a rote response that he could say during his Santa visit. After much drilling, we got Jack to where when he was prompted with “What does Jack want for Christmas?” he could say “I want toy microwave” (one of the many things he will be receiving this year). Of course, it sounded monotone and robotic, but that was just fine by me.
As Jack entered, he seemed initially apprehensive. However, once he saw that he was at his clinic, going into his therapy gym with his Mommy and Daddy (a novel concept in and of itself – we never go in there!), he seemed more at ease. He did take a minute or so to warm up to Santa, lingering near me and not looking in Santa’s direction. I got down on the floor with him and reassured him that he could take his time. Santa seemed to know what to do. He pulled out his phone and said, “Would you like to see a picture of my reindeer?” Well, Jack has never been one to turn away a chance to play on an electronic device, so he tentatively inched his way over to Santa to take a peek. Sure enough, Santa had a picture of himself with real reindeer (and don’t ask me where you find real reindeer in N. Georgia – I have no idea)!
After a minute or so of standing next to Santa, Santa eased Jack onto his lap as Brian and I began talking to Jack. Santa realized early on that Jack would only respond verbally to us, so he let us do the talking and sat back, smiling and nodding with each thing that Jack said. Of course, Jack did not respond to any of our well practiced Santa visit prompts in front of Santa. In fact, he was nearly silent, except when asked color questions by Brian or I, like “What color is Santa’s beard?” or “What color is Santa’s coat?” with a visual prompt like a point. He could then gleefully answer “White!” or “Red!”
But the picture below says it all…he was happy. My God, people – he was happy! He was comfortable and content and while he didn’t get the purpose of the exercise, he wasn’t in any kind of distress. That was the difference between this year and the last. He was happy.
The photographer stayed busy snapping picture after picture – which I haven’t gotten back yet since it was only yesterday – capturing some precious moments with our boy and the jolly old elf. We even managed to make it into the picture for the one thing I truly wanted this holiday season – a picture of my family.
As my boy and my husband departed and the next families rolled in, the same scene was repeated over and over again. There was no overwhelming apprehension. There were no meltdowns. There was no crying or screaming. There were just families getting what they had never gotten before – pictures of their children and families with Santa Claus.
All because one man, his wife, and a photographer said that they would donate a slice of their Sunday to helping make the holidays bright for some very special children. That is what kindness and good is.
As the day wound down and the last family trickled out the door, as the clinic was reassembled into the place it normally is, and as I dropped the donated toys at the Toys for Tots bin in the Publix across the street, I felt as though my heart might burst. Seeing all of those children feel comfortable and enjoy their experience with Santa was just – well – there are no words. No words to adequately describe it, except that I truly felt blessed and privileged to be a part of it. To be a part of something decent and good and inspiring in this season and at this time when we need so much more of that.
It reminded me that there are good and decent people in this world. That is what we must remember in these times of great sorrow. We must not let the actions of one destroy our faith in the whole of humanity. We must remember that there is love and decency and kindness and good in this world. We must not shelter our children from all of the good for fear of the bad. Rather, we must hug them a little tighter, kiss them an extra time no matter how much they resist, and send them forth to help make this world a better place for their presence within it.