DANVILLE — A trip to see Santa Claus at the mall is no small feat for any family, but it can be near impossible for children with special needs.
That’s why Lori Acree and Puzzled Minds of Vermilion County offer a unique experience to alleviate the stress normally associated with crowded and noisy photo ops at the mall.
“For a lot of them this is the only chance they’ll get to take a picture with Santa,” she said.
The “Sensory Santa” at Immanuel Lutheran Church experience began about five years ago for children with autism, and has since brought in kids who have an array of emotional and mental needs.
Instead of waiting in line, families schedule an appointment to meet and take photos with Santa Claus. Before meeting him, they can make Christmas crafts and eat snacks in a separate room. There isn’t Christmas music playing or any bright blinking lights on trees because children with autism are often sensitive to sounds and lights.
This year 29 families signed up for an appointment with Santa, with ages ranging from 2 to 16 years old.
Once in the room with Santa, the photographer starts taking photos on them interacting. Each child can take as long as they need to warm up to him; chatting, giving high fives and eventually – if they want to – hugging him and sitting on his lap.
The photographer takes photos of the entire experience, not just posed portraits. The room is relaxing and quiet with the natural lighting. One parent, Tanya Laury, said that the Sensory Santa photos of her daughter are some of her favorites ever.
“These are better than school photos because they’re not forced,” she said. “She actually looks like herself in these.”
Justin and Bethany Free brought their son Eli to Sensory Santa for the first time last year and came back again this year.
“He was a little quicker to warm up this year,” Bethany Free said. “We’re really glad this is here. We would never get anywhere in the mall.”
This free even is possible entirely because of volunteers. The photographer and Santa Claus, Annette and Shaun McMillan, are from Wellington and volunteer their services.
Other volunteers include Jenny Decker, Stephanie Pratt, Jessica Nemecz, Debbie Plush and Jennifer Rick. They all are either special education teachers in Vermilion County, or members of the Puzzled Minds group.
“We’re able to see the kids grow up,” Decker, who teaches at Mark Denman Elementary, said. “Each year they progress a little more.”
Acree added how special it is to see the children interact more and more each year.
“We’ve not had one unsuccessful visit,” she said. “If anything, we’ll have tears of happiness.”