Most parents have gone through the annual pre Christmas ritual -dressing your small child in their holiday best, buckling them into the car and driving to the nearest mall or party, hoping they don’t fall asleep before you arrive, just so your little girl or boy can have an opportunity to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas. Squeezed into that ritual is the photo –the moment captured on film that defines most childhood Christmases; a photo so important we stand in lines that seem a mile long, holding heavy coats and diaper bags, consoling crying toddlers with juice snacks and cheerios, testing the last strand of patience you didn’t even know you had.
For many of us, those lines and that screaming is simply an inconvenience; something to get through so we can move on with our seasonal preparations. But for others, those lines and lights; that hunger and thirst; the waiting and the noise are simply too much to bear. Most of the time, children with special needs go without the experience; and their parents go without the memory.
Nicole Ash and her son, Mikey, had a particularly bad experience in 2015, when the “jolly old elf” threw his arms up in despair of a crying child and walked away from the group of children with special needs who were waiting to see him.
“It was not a good experience,” said Ash. “It was heartbreaking to watch Santa walk away from these kids.”
Ash vented to friends about her experience, and not long afterward, a friend of hers posted a photo to her Facebook timeline of a Santa Claus lying on the floor with a child. That photo led to a chain of events that provided more than 40 children this year with an opportunity to visit with St. Nick in a quiet, relaxed environment and provided their families with a cherished photo of the moment.
Mikey’s speech therapist, who also happens to own a yoga studio, saw the photo on Ash’s Facebook page and asked her if she would help her bring this “Sensitive Santa” concept to the mountain.
“She said to me, ‘If you’d be willing to help me, I have the perfect place for it –it would be worth it even if we only do it for Mikey,” recalled Ash. “She said ‘I think I know a Santa’ and I said ‘I think I know a photographer’.”
“We pulled everything together in two weeks,” said Terry Tokach, Mikey’s speech therapist and owner of Mountain Yoga
Tokach, who has worked with children with special needs as a speech pathologist for the last 25 years, and opened Mountain Yoga in 2013, said that the whole purpose was to provide a space where these children could experience Santa Clause and their families could finally have a traditional photo of the holiday moment.
“If you have a special needs kid you’re living on the edge 24-7,” explained Tokach. “There is so much daily stress –doctor bills, appointments, testing, ER visits, special equipment, therapy -it never stops. “
So, Tokach called her friend, Bob Keenan and asked him to play Santa Claus for one afternoon in December of 2015. Ash called her friend, Lou Marino of LJM Photo Studio and asked him to take some photos of the children. Both readily agreed to volunteer, and in two weeks time, the two women had coordinated a waiting area, therapy dogs, several volunteers, a sign language interpreter and 25 children and their families.
“Bob is a very special person; very spiritual, very real,” said Tokach of Keenan. “He is very in tune with adapting to the child; he has a sense of what they need. He’s just a really cool guy.”
“He doesn’t just pose for pictures with these kids,” continued Tokach. “He wants the families to get their pictures but also wants a magical experience with these kids. “
Keenan has been working with people with special needs since he was in high school and is currently a school counselor. Some time ago, he suffered a stroke, and said that the healing process had taught him to live in the present moment. He says that is really all he does with the children –live in the present moment.
“The way he interacts with these kids?” mused Ash. “He’s the real Santa –he has to be.”
“I view it as a gift to me, quite frankly,” said Keenan. “I walk away and amazed at the kids and the parents. For me, it’s a gift to me to be in the present moment with them. It takes you out of the nonsense of life. And just helps you to realize what is most important.”
At the end of that afternoon, Tokach said there was absolutely no doubt that they were going to do it again in 2016.
“Watching these families participate in this event gives the rest of us a glimpse into how the things we take for granted can be so monumental,” said Tokach. “It affected everyone who helped in a profound way. “
“Things people take for granted, like going to the mall, can be very difficult for a child with special needs,” explained Ash. “If they’re non verbal, it is hard to explain that this is fun-and it might be fun for us but its not for them; they don’t process the world like we do and its heartbreaking. Its our job to break through and make them feel safe.”
Ash’s son, Mikey’s experience, is an example. His genetic disorder causes him to feel overwhelmed with lights or loud noises, such as those found in a holiday shopping mall. He suffers from seizures, and sitting still for a “picture” to him means an x-ray rather than a happy occasion with the man in red.
“As a parent, it melts my heart,” said Ash. “My son got to sit there with him. The picture is the most precious. Lou captured the heartfelt moment, not just a picture. That’s what we wanted.”
One of the most important parts of the program is the waiting –or lack thereof. Tokach has a room across the hall from the studio set up with crafts, games, a video corner with comfy chairs, a yoga corner, a corner to stack blocks and cups, and a space for floor games. She also had plenty of snacks and volunteers to help keep the children busy while they waited.
“Encore Dance allows us to use their studio which is huge,” said Tokach. “That room is like ‘home base’ for the families so volunteers can get the kids comfortable. That room is a huge part of the process.”
Once it is their turn, children are taken across the “Peppermint Pass” to the Mountain Yoga studio to see Santa Clause. Tokach calls that a “sacred space” where few people are allowed. The volunteers recognize that each child is unique, with different needs that may require as much as 30 minutes to “warm up” to Santa, or a therapy dog to provide comfort in the first few moments upon entering the room, or a sign language interpreter, or a low lit room complete with some aromatherapy, and soft music. Some children elect to play with the toy train or toss a ball back and forth with Santa. Some run right up to him and jump on his lap. Lou Marino of LJM Photo Studio and Jen Klinetop of Jen Klinetop Photography go to work, providing both candid and staged photos of each child’s time with Santa.
“When you look at the photos you can see the process,” noted Tokach. “They capture these moment beautifully. I can’t say enough about both of them and what they’ve donated to these families.”
“I look at the pictures and I cant help but smile,” remarked Keenan. “They are beautiful and precious. You see these kids for the most part who would not warm up to Santa, but do because of the environment they are provided. “
Christina Tompkins and her wife,